Human rights treaties are 'bedrock of sound governance,' says top UN official marking 50th anniversary

1 March 2016

Marking 50 years since the unanimous adoption of two United Nations human rights treaties – respectively promoting respect for civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights – a top UN official today said the landmark covenants have helped extend rights to people crushed by tyranny and discrimination for generations.

“The 50th anniversary of the Covenants must be an occasion to reaffirm our commitment to the 'International Bill of Rights' – the great tripod of principle and commitment that is formed by the two Covenants and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein told delegates attending the commemoration at UN headquarters in Geneva.

The UN Human Rights Council convened the special gathering as part of its 31st session, which opened yesterday, providing an opportunity for high-level delegations to mark the 50th anniversary of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

'What connects us is much stronger than what divides us'

“Half a century ago, the General Assembly unanimously adopted the two great covenants which brought force of law to the principles laid out in the Universal Declaration,” he explained.

“Humanity's collective experience of genocide, of devastating warfare, of colonial oppression and financial devastation had driven home the fact that respect for the human rights of all individuals ensures that nations and peoples can live in peace, with development that is sustainable and long-lasting,” added the High Commissioner.

The Mr. Zeid stressed that perhaps never in the Human Rights Council's decade of history has it been so vital to recall the transformative power of those fundamental lessons.

“Human rights build peace within and among States,” he continued. “Human rights ensure opportunities and the right to development for all. What connects us is much stronger than what divides us. People everywhere, have the same hopes and the same rights. The two great Covenants that we celebrate today commit States to ensure respect for the rights of all their people.”

Rights the Covenants defend 'are insuperable'

Mr. Zeid said all rights these treaties defend are inseparable, and underlined that the covenants are reflected in many national constitutions and laws, generating profoundly beneficial change in the lives of millions of people.

“They have taught us to respect the growing diversity of our societies, and they have sustained the force of grassroots activism, by ensuring that individuals and groups around the world can hold their governments to account for respecting and upholding civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights,” he said.

Both treaties have high levels of ratification, but 27 Member States have ratified neither and eight States have ratified only one. “I can grasp no valid justification for refraining from ratifying these fundamental treaties, and I hope that all remaining Member States will proceed to full ratification in the course of this anniversary year,” Mr. Zeid insisted.

“It is also crucial that the covenants be more widely and effectively implemented. Economic inequalities are deepening,” he warned. “When 62 people enjoy the same wealth as 3.8 billion individuals and the wealth of the poorest part of the world's population is diminishing steadily, we are far from the covenants' vision of freedom from want. Domestic violence is still not outlawed in one-third of States. Freedom of the press, of belief, of opinion and the right to peaceful assembly are under acute threat in many countries, and the democratic space is shrinking. Torture and slavery continue to inflict intolerable pain on far too many people. No valid grounds can justify such practices, including State security,” he explained.

“These great texts are the bedrock of sound governance. In them lives the world's hope for peace,” he declared, concluding his remarks.


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