Smart Library on Globalization
Topics |  Bibliography |  Authors |  Expert Panel |  Help Print PDF Add
The United Nations Human Rights Commission was formed to foster international human rights. Author Geoffrey Robertson says that the Commission has failed its mandate.

The United Nations (UN) was established with an eye to a new world order. A centerpiece of this new world order was to be the protection of human rights. Following the atrocities of World War II, this emphasis on human rights was pressing.

However, author Geoffrey Robertson says that the UN's record on this count has been dismal. He details the failure of the UN Human Rights Commission over the past fifty years.

The UN Human Rights Commission

The UN Human Rights Commission was established in 1947 as part of a triptych of human rights statements. UN human rights efforts were captured in three major statements:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The Declaration established a series of universal human rights that were to be binding on all nations.
  • Convention against Genocide (1948). This convention, passed unanimously by the General Assembly, was aimed at preventing the atrocities like those carried out by the Nazis in World War II.
  • Geneva Conventions (1949). The purpose of these conventions was to “civilize” war, especially with respect to the treatment of prisoners and enemy combatants.

The Human Rights Commission was charged with drafting a treaty that would oblige states to guarantee the human rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration as part of their domestic law. The Human Rights Commission was also to monitor state compliance. However, Robertson claims that, at the time the Universal Declaration was ratified, states did not take seriously the notion that the ideals of the declaration would actually be enforced.

Any hope of making these ideals a reality were shattered with the Cold War—beginning in earnest in 1948 with the blockade of Berlin and in 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bombs.

Cold War Failure East and West

The Human Rights Commission was a failure, and it would be another thirty years before the treaty the Commission was charged to create would come into effect. During the Cold War, human rights were paid little more than lip service in the international arena. The UN effectively turned a blind eye to human rights violations in both the East and the West.


Civil rights meant nothing in the Soviet bloc.

  • Soviet disregard for human rights was already evident in Stalin's show trials prior to World War II and in the millions of lives lost to Stalin's purges,
  • Movements in the Soviet bloc, such as those in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which called for the freedoms stated in the Universal Declaration were ruthlessly crushed,
  • One of the most potent symbols of Soviet commitment to destroy individual freedoms was created in 1961: the Berlin Wall.


The Soviet bloc did not hold a monopoly on violations of the Universal Declaration during the Cold War. U.S. violations of human rights during this period were egregious.

  • Discrimination against blacks in the U.S. amounted to apartheid,
  • The CIA financed efforts to overthrow ideologically opposed governments—regardless of whether they were democratically elected or not. Actions in Guatemala (1954) and Cuba (failing in 1961 with the Bay of Pigs) are just two examples. In 1973, the Nixon administration backed the military overthrow of Chile's democratically elected government.
  • U.S. actions during the Vietnam war amounted to a graveyard for the good intentions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. In addition to atrocities such as the My Lai massacre, the U.S. used millions of gallons of Agent Orange against the civilian population (killing huge numbers of innocent victims). In addition, the U.S. bombing of neutral Cambodia rallied support to the vicious Khmer Rouge regime, which ended with the killing of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians.

On all counts, The Human Rights Commission did nothing.

Concerted Action against South Africa

For almost twenty years the Commission's work had been limited to paper. Nothing had actually been done to enforce the standards of human rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Convention against Genocide.

In the 1960's, South Africa's policy of apartheid provided the opportunity to actually take action. In 1963, other African nations appealed to the Security Council for a trade boycott against South Africa. In 1967, the General Assembly formally condemned apartheid and called for economic sanctions.

But why South Africa, and why then?

Two things worked in favor of UN action against South Africa.

  • South Africa was already a pariah state, with few supporters besides Israel. Since Israel was already viewed a pariah state by the Arab nations, this did not help South Africa's case.
  • The climate during the late 1960s was full of idealism. There was spill over from the civil rights movement in the U.S. as well as from protests of the Vietnam War. Additionally, China was caught up in the Cultural Revolution and so was more focused on internal matters than international politics.

Taking advantage of this opening, the UN convened a conference in Tehran in 1968. Significantly, the Proclamation of Tehran stated the principle that member states of the international community had an obligation to support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Back to Business As Usual

The hope for additional action by the UN to support human rights did not last long, however. In fact, only three months after the Tehran conference, Soviet tanks were rolling through Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. The UN General Assembly did nothing. In fact, the UN appeared to change positions entirely in 1970.

The UN's Friendly Declaration (1970) undermined whatever progress had been made against South Africa and at the Tehran conference. In effect, this declaration returned to an official position in which states were prohibited from interfering in the domestic affairs of others. This declaration was called the “tyrant's charter” and stated:

“...armed intervention and all other forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or against its political, economic and cultural elements, are in violation of international law.”

Not only is it difficult to make sense of the UN's actions toward South Africa in light of the above statement, but the statement essentially gave dictators permission to carry out atrocities—an opportunity that tyrants like General Augusto Pinochet were not slow to take advantage of.

Twin Conventions of 1976 and the Human Rights Committee

The Commission presented two draft conventions to the UN General Assembly in 1966—eighteen years after its inception. This was about all that the Commission's work amounted to during this period. However, it was another ten years before the conventions were to enter into force.

Twin Conventions

In 1976, the two conventions finally came into force with thirty-five states ratifying them. The two conventions were the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Why two covenants? The Cold War was still firmly in place, and the focus of the two political blocs (U.S. and the USSR) had very different emphases on what counted as human rights. The U.S. bloc focused on civil and political rights, while the Soviet bloc focused more on economic and social rights. The Commission wisely drafted two separate conventions to reflect this difference in focus.

However, only the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was provided with an enforcement mechanism: the Human Rights Committee. The purpose of the Committee was two-fold:

  1. To study reports submitted every five years by state parties to the convention, and to make general comments on these reports,
  2. To serve as the body to which individuals and groups could complain against states regarding the infringement of the rights spelled out in the convention.

Forming the Human Rights Committee was much less a watershed than it might seem, however. The Committee suffered from severe limitations and flaws and so has been largely ineffective. In fact, Robertson observes that the Committee made itself a laughing stock when Libya was elected as the chair to the Committee in 2003.

Bottom Line

The hope for a new world order envisioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was almost immediately crushed with the start of the Cold War. The Human Rights Commission, established to make the principles of the Universal Declaration a reality, failed miserably. The Commission did little more than paperwork during the Cold War, and turned a blind eye to the atrocities around them. The treaties that the Commission was charged to draft did not come into effect until almost thirty years after the Commission was formed.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

Information was drawn from the author's experience conducting missions for Amnesty International and analysis of historical and legal research.

Funding Sources:

Not provided.

Full Text Availability:
Available for purchase at

Robertson, Geoffrey. 2006. Crimes Against Humanity. New York: The New Press. Ch. 1, pp. 1-40.

© Copyright 2017 CLG Portal. All Rights Reserved. Powered by