Glossary of Human Rights Terms

Summary: Listing and definition of more common terms in human rights documents

A - B - C - DE - F - GHI - J - K - L - M -N 

OP - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W - X - Y - Z 

  

A

ACCOUNTABILITY: States and other duty bearers are accountable and must act within the rule of law. They are answerable for the observance of human rights. They have to comply with the legal norms and standards enshrined in human rights instruments. Where they fail to do so, aggrieved rights-holders are entitled to institute proceedings.

C

CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS: The rights of citizens to liberty and equality; sometimes referred to as ‘first generation rights’. Civil rights include freedom to worship, to think and express oneself, to vote, to take part in political life, and to have access to information. These rights are often mentioned in conjunction with ‘second-generation’ economic, social, and cultural rights, which have sometimes been regarded as lesser rights.

COLLECTIVE RIGHTS: The rights of groups to protect their interests and identities.

COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS: The Commission was the UN’s principal mechanism and international forum concerned with the promotion and protection of human rights. In March 2006, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to replace the Commission with the UN Human Rights Council.

CONVENTION ON THE ELIMINATION OF ALL FORMS OF DISCRIMNATION AGAINST WOMEN (CEDAW) (adopted 1979; entered into force 1981): The first legally binding international document prohibiting discrimination against women and obligating governments to take affirmative steps to advance the equality of women.

CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD (CRC) (adopted 1989; entered into force 1990): Convention setting forth a full spectrum of civil, cultural, economic, social and political rights for children. Since its adoption, it has been ratified more quickly and by more governments than any other human rights instrument. The USA and Somalia are the only countries which have failed to ratify. The Convention is also the only international human rights treaty that expressly gives non-governmental organisations (NGOs) a role in monitoring its implementation (under Article 45a).

CONVENTION: Also called Treaty or Covenant, it is a binding agreement between states. Conventions are stronger than Declarations because they are legally binding for governments that have signed them. When the UN General Assembly adopts a convention, it creates international norms and standards. Once a convention is
adopted by the UN General Assembly, Member States can then ratify the convention, promising to uphold it. The UN can then censure governments that violate the standards set forth in a convention.

COVENANT: Binding agreement between states; used synonymously with Convention and Treaty. The major international human rights covenants, both passed in 1966, are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

CULTURE: Culture is comprised of values, attitudes, norms, ideas, internalized habits and perceptions as well as the concrete forms or expression they take in. For example, social roles, structures and relationships, codes of behaviours and explanations for behaviour that are to a significant extent shared among a group people. Culture is learned and internalized, and influences people’s actions and interpretations of  circumstances at the same time as people in turn influences the content of culture by their compliance with it or by challenging it.

CUSTOMARY INTERNATIONAL LAW: Law that becomes binding on states although it is not written, but rather adhered to out of custom. When enough states have begun to behave as though something is law, it becomes law “by use”; this is one of the main sources of international law. For example, laws of war were long a matter of customary law before they were codified in the Geneva Conventions and other treaties. The vast majority of the world's governments accept in principle the existence of customary international law, although there are many differing opinions as to what rules are contained in it.

D 

DECLARATION: Document stating agreed upon standards but is not legally binding. UN conferences, like the 1993 Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the 1995 World Conference for Women in Beijing, usually produce two sets of declarations: one written by government representatives and one by Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The UN General Assembly often issues influential but legally non binding declarations.

DUTY BEARERS: Human rights are linked to duties, accountability, obligation and responsibility. Duty bearers are the actors collectively responsible for the realisation of human rights. Those who bear duties with respect to a human right are accountable if the right goes unrealised. When a right has been violated or insufficiently protected,  there is always someone or some institution that has failed to perform a duty.


E
 

ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COUNCIL (ECOSOC): Assists the General Assembly in promoting international economic and social cooperation and development. ECOSOC has 54 members, all of whom are elected by the General Assembly for a three-year term. The president is elected for a one-year term and chosen amongst the small or middle powers represented on ECOSOC. The Council meets once a year in July for a four-week session. Since 1998, it has held another meeting each April with finance ministers heading key committees of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Viewed separate from the specialised bodies it coordinates, ECOSOC’s functions like those of other UN organs include information gathering, advising member nations, and making recommendations. In addition, ECOSOC is well-positioned to provide policy coherence and coordinate the overlapping functions of the UN’s subsidiary bodies; it is in these roles that it is most active.

ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS: These rights relate to the conditions necessary to meet basic human needs such as food, shelter, education, health care, and gainful employment. They include the rights to education, adequate housing, food, water, the highest attainable standard of health, the right to work and rights at work, as well as the cultural rights of minorities and indigenous peoples.

ENVIRONMENTAL, CULTURAL AND DEVELOPMENTAL RIGHTS: Sometimes referred to as third generation rights, these rights recognise that people have the right to live in a safe and healthy environment and that groups of people have the right to cultural, political, and economic development.


G 

GENDER: Cultural interpretation of biological sex; definitions of what is considered to be feminine and masculine in particular cultural and social settings, and expectations of women and men, boys and girls with respect to these definitions; social, economic and political relationships between males and females in specific societies.

GENERAL MEASURES OF IMPLEMENTATION: Strategies identified by the Committee on the Rights of the Child that States can apply to ensure the effective implementation of the CRC. The measures are broadly categorised into administrative and legislative measures.

GENOCIDE: The systematic killing of people because of their race or ethnicity.


H

HUMAN RIGHTS: These are the rights possessed by all persons, by virtue of their common humanity, to live a life of freedom and dignity. They give all people moral claims on the behaviour of individuals and on the design of social arrangements. Human rights are universal, inalienable and indivisible. The idea of human rights as inalienable means that it is impossible for anyone to abdicate their human rights, even if he or she wanted to, since every person is accorded those rights by virtue of being human. It also means that no person or group of persons can deprive another individual of her or his human rights. The indivisibility of human rights means that none of the rights considered to be fundamental human rights are more important than any other; they are inter-related. These rights express our deepest commitments to ensuring that all persons are secure in their enjoyment of the goods and freedoms that are necessary for dignified living.

HUMAN RIGHTS TREATIES, COVENANTS AND CONVENTIONS: are part of international law. Used interchangeably, treaty, covenant and convention refer to legally binding agreements between states. These agreements define the duties of states parties to the treaty, covenant or convention. They apply in times of peace and conflict. Human rights treaties regulate obligations of states towards persons in their own territory (rather than towards other states). Even though the UDHR is not a convention, it has become ‘common law’ and is now considered legally binding for all states.

HUMANITARIAN LAW: (Geneva Conventions) rules the behaviour of states and other combatants in armed conflicts. It clarifies obligations between states, e.g. on: hijacking, nuclear weapons, airspace, extradition, laws ruling the behaviour of parties in armed conflict.


I

INALIENABILITY: Human rights are inalienable: they cannot be taken away by others, nor can one give them up voluntarily.

INDIVISIBILITY: Human rights are indivisible in two senses. First, there is no hierarchy among different kinds of rights. Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are all equally necessary for a life of dignity. Second, some rights cannot be suppressed in order to promote others. Civil and political rights may not be violated to promote economic, social and cultural rights. Nor can economic, social and cultural rights be suppressed to promote civil and political rights.

INTERDEPENDENT: Refers to the complementary framework of human rights law. For example, your ability to participate in your government is directly affected by your right to express yourself, to get an education, and even to obtain the necessities of life.

INTERGOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (IGOs): Organisation sponsored by several governments that seek to coordinate their efforts; some are regional (e.g., the Council of Europe, the Organisation of African Unity), some are alliances (e.g., the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO); and some are dedicated to a specific purpose (e.g., the UN Centre for Human Rights, and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural
Organisation, UNESCO).

INTERNATIONAL BILL OF HUMAN RIGHTS: The combination of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant On Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its optional Protocol, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

INTERNATIONAL COVENANT ON CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS (ICCPR):
Adopted in 1966, and entered into force in 1976. The ICCPR declared that all people have a broad range of civil and political rights. One of the components of the International Bill of Human Rights.

INTERNATIONAL COVENANT ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS
(ICESCR):
Adopted in 1966, and entered into force 1976. The ICESCR declares that all people have a broad range of economic, social and cultural rights. One of the components of the International Bill of Human Rights.

INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANIZATION (ILO): Established in 1919 as part of the Versailles Peace Treaty to improve working conditions and promote social justice. The ILO became a specialized agency of the United Nations in 1946.

L

LEGAL RIGHTS: Rights that are laid down in law and can be defended and
brought before courts of law.


M

MEMBER STATES: Countries that are members of the United Nations.

MORAL RIGHTS: Rights that are based on general principles of fairness and
justice; they are often but not always based on religious beliefs. People
sometimes feel they have a moral right even when they do not have a
legal right. For example, during the civil rights movement in the US,
protesters demonstrated against laws forbidding Blacks and Whites to
attend the same schools on grounds that these laws violated their moral
rights.


N

NATURAL LAWS: Rights that belong to people simply because they are human beings.

NONBINDING: A document, like a DECLARATION, that carries no formal legal
obligations. It may, however, carry moral obligations or attain the force of law as INTERNATIONAL CUSTOMARY LAW.

NONGOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (NGOs): Organisations formed by people outside of government. NGOs monitor the proceedings of human rights bodies such as the Commission on Human Rights and are the “watchdogs” of the human rights that fall within their mandate. Some are large and international (e.g., the Red Cross, Amnesty International); others may be small and local (e.g., an organization to advocate for people with disabilities in a particular city). NGOs play a major role in influencing
UN policy, and many of them have official consultative status at the UN.

O

OPTIONAL PROTOCOL (OP): An optional protocol to a treaty is a multilateral agreement that States parties can ratify or accede to, intended to further a specific purpose of the treaty or to assist in the implementation of its provisions.

P

POLITICAL RIGHTS: The right of people to participate in the political life of their communities and society. For example, the right to vote for their government or run for office. See civil and political rights.

PROTOCOL: A treaty that modifies another treaty (e.g., adding additional procedures or substantive provisions).


R

RATIFICATION, RATIFY: Ratification, acceptance and approval all refer to the act undertaken on the international plane, whereby a State establishes its consent to be bound by a treaty. Most multilateral treaties expressly provide for States to express their consent to be bound by signature subject to ratification, acceptance or approval.

REALISATION of human rights. A human right is realised when individuals enjoy the freedoms covered by that right and their enjoyment of the right is secure. A person ’s human rights are realised if sufficient social arrangements are in place to protect her/him against threats to her/his enjoyment of the freedoms covered by those rights.

RESERVATION to a treaty (covenant, convention) indicates that a state party does not agree to comply with one or more of its provisions. Reservations are, in principle, intended to be used only temporarily, when states are unable to realise a treaty provision but agree in principle to do so. Reservations can be made when the treaty is signed, ratified, accepted, approved or acceded to. Reservations must not be incompatible with the object and the purpose of the treaty. Furthermore, a treaty might prohibit reservations or only allow for certain reservations to be made.

S

SELF-DETERMINATION: Determination by the people of a territorial unit of their own political future without coercion from powers outside that region.

SIGNING, SIGN: In human rights the first step in ratification of a treaty; to sign a Declaration, Convention or one of the Covenants constitutes a promise to adhere to the principles in the document and to honor its spirit.

STATES PARTY(IES): A State party to a treat is a Statethat has expressed its consent to be bound by that treaty by an act of ratification, acceptance, approval of accession etc, where that treaty has entered into force for that particular State. This means that the State is bound by the treaty under international law.



T

TREATY BODIES: The committees formally established through the principal international human rights treaties to monitor States Parties' compliance with the treaties. Seven Treaty bodies have been set up for the core UN human rights treaties to monitor states parties’ efforts to implement their provisions. There will be eight once the new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities enters into force and spawns its own committee.

TREATY: See Convention.


U

UNITED NATIONS CHARTER: Initial document of the UN setting forth its goal, functions, and responsibilities; adopted in San Francisco in 1945.

UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY: One of the principal organs of the UN, consisting of representatives of all member states. The General Assembly issues DECLARATIONS and adopts CONVENTIONS on human rights issues, debates relevant issues, and censures states that violate human rights. The actions of the General Assembly are governed by the United Nations Charter.

UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS (UDHR): Adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Primary UN document establishing human rights standards and norms. All member states have agreed to uphold the UDHR. Although the declaration was intended to be nonbinding, through time its various provisions have become so respected by States that it can now be said to be Customary International Law.

UNIVERSALITY: Human rights belong to all people, and all people have equal status with respect to these rights. Failure to respect an individual ’s human right has the same weight as failure to respect the right of any other —it is not better or worse depending on the person ’s gender, race, ethnicity, nationality or any other distinction.

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This glossary has been compiled from various but draws extensively on:

Nancy Flowers (ed.), Human Rights Here and Now (Human Rights USA Resource Center), 1998. Adapted from Julie Mertus et al. Local Action/Global Change, Ed O’Brien et al, Human Rights for All, and Frank Newman and David Weissbrodt, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process.

Countries

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