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Logo: The 20th Anniversary of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The 20th Anniversary of OHCHR – 20 human rights achievements

The creation of the position of High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993 has enabled an independent, authoritative voice to speak out for human rights worldwide.

The Office of the High Commissioner responds to crises, supports human rights defenders, and brings human rights closer to people. Through advocacy, monitoring and training activities, it contributes to legislative and policy reforms to increase accountability for human rights violations and advance human rights.

Many challenges lie ahead in the struggle to promote and enhance the dignity, freedom, and rights of all human beings. In the past two decades, however, significant progress has been made.

The following are 20 of the most important achievements accomplished since 1993:


1. Economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights and the right to development are recognized as universal, indivisible, and mutually reinforcing rights of all human beings, without distinction.

The enjoyment of all human rights is interlinked. The enjoyment of one right contributes to the advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others. For example, it is often harder for individuals who cannot read and write to find work, to take part in political activity or to exercise their freedom of expression.

Economic, social and cultural rights include the rights to adequate food, to adequate housing, to education, to health, to social security, to take part in cultural life, to water and sanitation, and to work. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights entered into force in 1976, while its Optional Protocol in 2013. The Committee that monitors the implementation of the Covenant was established in 1985. A special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights was also appointed in 2009.

Civil and political rights include the right to life, liberty and personal security, freedom from slavery, torture and arbitrary arrest, as well as the rights to a fair trial, free speech and free movement and privacy. The Human Rights Committee monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force in 1976. There are two optional protocols, the first one entered into force in 1976, while the Second Optional Protocol, which addresses the issue of the abolition of death penalty, came into force in 1991.

The right to development is an inalienable human right: every person is entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development. A Declaration on the Right to Development was adopted in 1986. There is also an intergovernmental open-ended Working Group on the Right to Development, which was established in 1998.


2. Human rights have become central to the global conversation regarding peace, security and development.

Peace and security, development and human rights are the three pillars of the United Nations.

The integration of human rights in peacekeeping has significantly enhanced United Nations peace missions’ preparedness to prevent and respond to human rights violations. United Nations Security Council Resolutions, for example, have increasingly given strong human rights mandates to peacekeeping operations. 

The ability of United Nations peace operations to protect local populations from large scale incidents of grave human rights violations has increasingly become the yardstick by which missions’ performance and success is scrutinized.

As of June 2013, there are 15 human rights components in UN peace missions.


3. New human rights standards have built on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the implementation of international human rights treaties is significantly improved.

The human rights treaty bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor the implementation of the core international human rights treaties. Each State party to a treaty has an obligation to ensure that everyone in the State can enjoy the rights set out in the treaty.

The treaty bodies system has seen an incremental growth over the past few years, with the adoption by States of new human rights instruments and the creation of new treaty bodies. All parties benefit from their work: victims reach out to treaty bodies for redress and reparation through the individual complaints system and Governments depend on them for a greater understanding of their obligations under international human rights law. Everyone benefits from having publicly available information on the human rights situation in all countries.


4. Additional explicit protections in international law now exist covering, among others, children, women, victims of torture, persons with disabilities, and regional institutions. Where there are allegations of breaches, individuals can bring complaints to the international human rights treaty bodies.

Each year, more than 7, 500 people around the world bring human rights complaints to the attention of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights under the treaty bodies’ complaint procedures.

The cases brought to the attention of the respective Committees have reached national and in some cases international impact. They have improved and alleviated the human rights situation of individuals in countries worldwide, and have contributed to avoid occurrence of similar violations in the future.


5. Women’s rights are now acknowledged as fundamental human rights. Discrimination and acts of violence against women are at the forefront of the human rights discourse. 

The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights recognized women’s rights as human rights.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) came into force in 1981 and its Committee was established in 1982. The Convention, often described as an international bill of rights for women, has almost achieved universal ratification. An Optional Protocol to the Convention was adopted in 1999.

A Working Group on the discrimination against women in law and in practice was appointed in 2011. The establishment of the Working Group was a milestone on the long road towards women’s equality with men.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted in December 1993, sets out the measures that States and international agencies should take to ensure the elimination of all forms of violence against women, whether in the public or private sphere;

The first Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women was appointed in 1994.


6. There is global consensus that serious violations of human rights must not go unpunished. Victims have the right to claim justice, including within processes to restore the rule of law following conflicts. The International Criminal Court brings perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice.

On 7 August 2012, the International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 2002, issued its first landmark decision on reparations for victims, in the case against Thomas Lubanga, the first person ever convicted by the ICC.

The decision sets out important principles for reparations before the ICC, confirming that victims should receive reparation, and that the needs of vulnerable victims, including women, children, and victims of sexual and gender-based violence, must be addressed as a priority. The decision recognized that the right to reparations is a well-established and basic human right that is enshrined in universal and regional human rights treaties, and in other international instruments, including the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation.


7. There has been a paradigm shift in the recognition of the human rights of people with disabilities, especially and crucially, their right to effective participation in all spheres of life on an equal basis with others.

Some 10 per cent of the world’s population – about 650 million people – are persons with disabilities.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which entered into force in 2008, sets out international human rights standards for all persons with disabilities in the world.

The Convention has marked a shift in how people with disabilities are viewed: no longer are they seen as objects of charity or medical treatment but as people capable of making their own decisions and exercising their rights. The Convention requires States, the private sector and others to take on the responsibility of respecting, protecting and fulfilling the rights of persons with disabilities and promotes international cooperation towards development and humanitarian assistance.

An Optional Protocol to the Convention entered into force at the same time as the Convention allowing individuals to file complaints against State Parties.


8. There is now an international framework that recognizes the challenges facing migrants and their families which guarantees their rights and those of undocumented migrants.

An estimated 214 million people currently live outside their country of origin, many having moved for a variety of reasons in which the search for protection and the search for opportunity are inextricably entwined.

Migrants often work in jobs that are dirty, dangerous and degrading. While for some migration is a positive and empowering experience, far too many migrants have to endure human rights violations, discrimination, and exploitation.

Human rights mechanisms, such as the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, appointed in 1999, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which entered into force in 2003, have been clear in stating that although countries have a sovereign right to determine conditions of entry and stay in their territories, they also have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all individuals under their jurisdiction, regardless of their nationality or origin and regardless of their immigration status.


9. The rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals have been placed on the international agenda.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of all ages and in all regions of the world are subjected to hate-motivated physical violence. Many more are discriminated against in the labour market, in schools and in hospitals, or mistreated and disowned by their own families. In at least 76 countries, having a partner of the same sex is considered a criminal offence.

In recent years, many States have made a determined effort to strengthen human rights protection for LGBT people. An array of new laws has been adopted – including laws banning discrimination, penalizing homophobic hate crimes, granting legal recognition of same-sex relationships, and making it easier for transgender individuals to obtain official documents that reflect their preferred gender.

In 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay launched a global appeal for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality and for other measures to tackle violence and discrimination against LGBT people. They have since raised the issue repeatedly in public speeches and private meetings.

In June 2011, the Human Rights Council adopted the first United Nations resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity. Its adoption paved the way for the first official United Nations report on the issue prepared by the UN Human Rights Office.


10. The challenges facing indigenous peoples and minorities are increasingly being identified and addressed by the international human rights mechanisms, especially with respect to their right to non-discrimination.

In recent years, there have been significant advances in indigenous issues and rights, including the landmark adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. In the same year, an Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was established by the Human Rights Council.

The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations, established in 1985, gives indigenous peoples the opportunity to participate in the sessions of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, established in 2000, the Expert Mechanism, the Human Rights Council, including its Universal Periodic Review mechanism, and the treaty bodies. In 2012, the mandate of the Fund was expanded to include support for indigenous peoples to participate in the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, to be held in 2014.

A Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples was appointed in 2001.

The second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People started in 2005 and will end in the year 2014. The first decade was from 1995 to 2004.

Minority rights are being increasingly recognized as an integral part of the United Nations work for the promotion and protection of human rights, sustainable human development, peace and security.

A Forum on Minority Issues was established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2007. It provides a platform for promoting dialogue and cooperation on issues pertaining to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. The Forum is guided by the Independent Expert on minority issues, first appointed in 2005.

The United Nations Minorities Declaration was adopted in 1992.


11. The Human Rights Council, set up in 2006, has addressed vital and sensitive issues and its Universal Periodic Review, established in the same year, has allowed countries to assess each other’s human rights records, make recommendations and provide assistance for improvement.

The Human Rights Council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.

Since its establishment, the Council has responded to urgent human rights situations though special sessions; has taken measures to address the accountability for the grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by establishing commissions of inquiry or dispatching fact-finding missions; and has adopted approximately 456 resolutions to address a wide range of human rights issues.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. It provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. As one of the main features of the Council, the UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed.

The first cycle of the UPR was completed in March 2012. All 193 member States of the United Nations participated in the review. The discussions covered all human rights issues, from civil and political rights, to economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development.


12. Independent human rights experts and bodies monitor and investigate from a thematic or country-specific perspective. They cover all rights in all regions, producing hard-hitting public reports that increase accountability and help fight impunity.

United Nations Special Procedures are independent human rights experts who examine, monitor and report on specific human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. They currently investigate and report on 36 specific human rights thematic mandates, such as water and sanitation, food, involuntary disappearances, migrants, torture and human trafficking, and 12 mandates relating to countries or territories.

A deeper understanding of a country’s human rights situation as it develops can be obtained by assessment missions. If circumstances warrant, the Human Rights Council can decide to send investigative missions, which investigate human rights violations, and, where possible, identify the perpetrators.

Members of these assessment missions gather information by meeting with government officials, opposition leaders, human rights defenders, members of civil society, victims of rights violations and their families, religious leaders and internally displaced people. Frequently they visit prisons and hospitals. They also collect materials like photographs, videos, reports and other documents that might help in establishing the human rights situation.


13. States and the United Nations recognize the pivotal role of civil society in the advancement of human rights. Civil society has been at the forefront of human rights promotion and protection, pinpointing problems and proposing innovative solutions, pushing for new standards, contributing to public policies, giving voice to the powerless, building worldwide awareness about rights and freedoms and helping to build sustainable change on the ground.

The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights recognized the important role of non-governmental organizations. Civil society actors played a pivotal role in the establishment of the position of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The increased engagement of civil society with Unite Nations human rights mechanisms boosted the development of new standards and strengthened the human rights system.

In recent years, more protection mechanisms have been put in place to protect civil society actors who are at risk because of their human rights activities. A Declaration on human rights defenders was adopted in 1998 and the mandate on the situation of human rights defenders was established in 2000.

Throughout the years, the UN Human Rights Office has developed and implemented a variety of strategies and measures to protect civil society actors, particularly at the field level. They range from monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights defenders to quiet diplomacy with State representatives; advocacy and advice on legislation impacting on civil society; liaising with actors that can provide protection measures; visiting civil society actors in detention or observing trials where they are under prosecution.


14. There is heightened awareness and growing demand by people worldwide for greater transparency and accountability from government and for the right to participate fully in public life. 

Millions of people have gone on to the streets over the past few years, in countries all across the world. They have been asking for their right to participate fully in the important decisions and policies affecting their daily lives, at the international, national and the local levels.

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Every person shall have the right to vote and be elected, and to have access to public service, as well as to free expression, assembly and association. These are among the rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which 167 States are party. And they have been restated in many similar ways in other laws and documents.


15. National human rights institutions have become more independent and authoritative and have a powerful influence on governance. Over a third of all countries have established one or more such institutions.

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) receive and consider complaints of human rights violations, participate in accountability and transitional justice processes in countries affected by conflict or in transition after conflict, assist in the development of democratic institutions and organize capacity building especially in the areas of accountability, the rule of law and democracy.

The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna represented a turning point for NHRIs. The Conference reaffirmed the role played by national institutions, in particular in their advisory capacity to the competent authorities, their role in remedying human rights violations, in the dissemination of human rights information, and human rights education.

NHRIs have seen exponential growth from the 1990s onwards. The number of NHRIs began to grow in the Americas in the early 1990s, in Africa and Europe in the mid-1990s and in the Asia-Pacific region in the late 1990s.


16. The United Nations Fund for Victims of Torture  has assisted hundreds of thousands of victims of torture to rebuild their lives. Likewise, the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, with its unique victim-oriented approach, has provided humanitarian, legal, and financial aid to individuals whose human rights have been violated through more than 500 projects.

The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture was established in 1981 to provide “humanitarian, legal and financial aid to individuals whose human rights have been severely violated as a result of torture”.

The Fund awards grants to non-governmental organizations, associations of victims and family members of victims, private and public hospitals, legal clinics, public interest law firms and individual lawyers, who - in turn - assist torture survivors and their family members in rebuilding their lives.

Through the disbursement of grants averagely amounting to 35,000 USD each, it is estimated that some 70,000 victims are helped every year. Over the last 30 years the Fund has provided financial assistance amounting to over 120 million USD to more than 600 organizations worldwide.

In 1984, the General Assembly adopted the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which entered into force on 26 June 1987. The Convention obliges States to make torture a crime and to prosecute and punish those guilty of it. These States parties are required to report to the UN Committee against Torture, set up in 1987.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, first appointed in 1985, also plays a key role in the international fight against torture by responding to complaints from individuals and groups.

The United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery was established in 1991 with the aim of providing “humanitarian, legal and financial aid to individuals whose human rights have been severely violated as a result of contemporary forms of slavery, and their relatives who have been directly affected by the victim’s suffering.”

Contemporary forms of slavery include traditional slavery, serfdom, servitude, forced labour, debt bondage, the worst forms of child labour, forced and early marriage, the sale of wives and inherited widows, trafficking in persons and of human organs, sexual slavery, sale of children, commercial sexual exploitation of children and children in armed conflict.

Over the last 20 years, the Fund has supported over 500 projects aimed at directly assisting thousands of victims to break free from contemporary forms of slavery in more than 95 countries in all regions of the world.

The first Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences was appointed in 2008.


17. Victims of trafficking are now regarded as entitled to the full range of human rights and are no longer perceived to be criminals. 

The UN Human Rights Office has succeeded in bringing about recognition that those subjected to trafficking are victims rather than perpetrators of crime. This concept is embodied in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime adopted in 2000.

The criminal approach deals effectively with trafficking in persons solely as a crime, focusing on bringing perpetrators to justice, without paying much attention to the plight of the victim. The victim-centered approach is much broader as it is designed to address the root causes that push victims to fall prey in the hands of traffickers.

In 2002 the UN Human Rights Office developed a set of principles and guidelines on human rights and human trafficking to provide practical, rights- based policy guidance on the prevention of trafficking and on the protection of victims of trafficking, through the integration of a human rights perspective into national, regional and international anti –trafficking laws, policies and interventions.

A Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children was first appointed in 2004.

States now have an elaborate human rights approach in their tool box for addressing human trafficking.


18. A growing consensus is emerging that business enterprises have human rights responsibilities.

The growing reach and impact of business enterprises have given rise to a debate about the roles and responsibilities of such actors with regard to human rights.

Over the past decade, the United Nations human rights machinery has been considering the scope of business’ human rights responsibilities and exploring ways for corporate actors to be accountable for the impact of their activities on human rights.

As a result of this process, there is now greater clarity about the respective roles and responsibilities of governments and business with regard to protection and respect for human rights. In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for implementing the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, providing – for the first time – a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity.


19. There are now guidelines for States which support freedom of expression while defining where speech constitutes a direct incitement to hatred or violence.

In recent years, incidents involving hate speech, negative stereotyping in the media, and even advocacy of religious or national hatred including by public officials and political parties have resulted in killings of innocent people, attacks on places of worship and calls for reprisals. This spiral of violence has made it incumbent to renew the search for the correct balance between freedom of expression and the equally vital need to protect individuals and communities from discrimination and violence.

In 2013, the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence was launched. It recommends, inter alia, the adoption of comprehensive national anti-discrimination legislations with preventive and punitive action to effectively combat incitement to hatred, as well as the empowerment of minorities and vulnerable groups.

Among the key factors put forward in the Rabat Plan of Action to prevent incitement to hatred are the collective responsibility of public officials, religious and community leaders, the media and individuals, and the need to nurture social consciousness, tolerance, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue."


20. The body of international human rights law continues to evolve and expand, to address emerging human rights issues such as the rights of older persons, the right to the truth, a clean environment, water and sanitation, and food.

Emerging human rights issues are widely recognized in international law. For example:

The number of persons aged 60 and more is anticipated to rise from its current 740 million to reach 1 billion by 2020. Unfortunately the increase in numbers has also shed light on the lack of adequate protection mechanisms and on the existing gaps in policies and programmes to address the situation of older persons.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights strives to ensure that neglected population groups are given space and weight in the human rights agenda, and that governments take all measures required to protect and promote human rights.

The right to the truth provides for victims and their families the right to know the truth about the circumstances in which violations of human rights occurred, including who participated in them. In cases of enforced disappearances and missing persons, it also implies the right to know the fate and whereabouts of the victim.

The International Day for the Right to the Truth was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 and is observed annually on 24 March. The right to the truth is recognized in several international and regional treaties and instruments, including the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, national laws, national, regional and international jurisprudence, and numerous resolutions and statements of intergovernmental bodies.

In recent years, the recognition of the links between human rights and the environment has greatly increased. Many States now incorporate a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. However, many questions about the relationship of human rights and the environment remain unresolved and require examination.

The first Independent Expert on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment was appointed in 2012. There is also a Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste. The first appointment dates 1995.

Having access to safe drinking water and sanitation is central to living a life in dignity and upholding human rights. Yet billions of people still do not enjoy these fundamental rights.

The right to water and sanitation require that these rights are available, accessible, safe, acceptable and affordable for all, without discrimination. The first Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation was appointed in 2008.

The right to food is the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access to adequate and sufficient food to ensure a physical and mental fulfilling and signified life free of fear.

The first Special Rapporteur on the right to food was appointed in 2000.

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