The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) was created in 1946 by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), in response to an international outcry over the human rights violations that followed World Wars I and II.
During its six decades as an active Commission, UNCHR met each year in regular session for six weeks in Geneva, Switzerland. At each session, the Commission typically adopted dozens of resolutions, decisions, and Chairperson’s statements on what it called “matters of relevance to individuals in all regions and circumstances.” The Commission was assisted in this work by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, numerous working groups, and a network of individual experts.
According to UNCHR, its procedures and mechanisms were mandated to “examine, monitor and publicly report either on human rights situations in specific countries or territories … or on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide.”
The first Chairperson of the Commission was Eleanor Roosevelt. Under her leadership, UNCHR and its original 18 Member States drafted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted on December 10, 1948 by the then-58 member states of the United Nations. With the representatives of two nations absent, the General Assembly vote was 48 nations in favor and eight nations abstaining. Those abstaining from support for this human rights document were Byelorussian SSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, Ukrainian SSR, the Union of South Africa, and Yugoslavia.
The yardsticks of “human rights” set forth in this 1948 document were based on compromises between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. It stated that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”; “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”; “no one shall be held in slavery”; “no one shall be subjected to torture”; criminal defendants will be “presumed innocent until proved guilty”; all people have a right to “privacy” and “freedom of movement,” including “the right to leave any country, including his own”; “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion … freedom of opinion and expression … [and] of peaceful assembly and association”; “everyone has the right to own property”; “men and women of full age … have the right to marry and found a family”; government’s authority is based on the will of the people in elections “by universal and equal suffrage … held by secret vote”; every person “has the right to social security” and “the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality”; “everyone has the right to work” and to receive “equal pay for equal work,” to “form and join trade unions,” to “rest and leisure,” and to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”; “everyone has the right to education” that is “free … and compulsory” and “directed to the full development of the human personality.” “These rights and freedoms,” the Declaration added, “may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”
In June 1993, representatives of 171 countries met in Vienna, Austria, at the World Conference on Human Rights. There they adopted a new “holistic” approach to the Declaration’s vision of universal human rights, with the idea that a person’s human rights vary with his or her “national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.” Thus the “rights” of a woman born in Saudi Arabia, for example, were to be defined not by the United Nations Universal Declaration but by the accepted norms of her nation, culture, and strict Wahhabist Islamic faith.
UNCHR wrestled with political as well as semantic problems in trying to enforce the Declaration, which among other things affirmed each human being’s right to “freedom from fear,” most notably the fear of terrorism. Terrorism, however, was never clearly defined by the United Nations. The reason for this, writes Columbia University law professor Anne Bayefsky, is that “members of the Organization of Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States have blocked consensus on any common understanding of terrorism. In the view of countries like Saudi Arabia, expressed again during the [2003 session of UNCHR], ‘we should distinguish between the phenomenon of terrorism and the right of peoples to achieve self-determination.'” This was akin to the maxim that “one man’s ‘terrorist’ is another’s ‘freedom fighter.'”
UNCHR’s practical approach to terror was demonstrated in its resolutions condemning Israel — which accounted for more than one-fourth of all the resolutions it passed over a 30-year period, and far outnumbered those passed against any other nation. On April 15, 2003, UNCHR adopted a resolution endorsing the use of “all available means including armed struggle” as legitimate Palestinian tactics against Israel.
Chairmanship of UNCHR changed on an annual basis, sometimes going to nations that ranked among the world’s most egregious human rights violators. For example, in 2002 the Commission was chaired by Syria, and in 2003 by Libya. In 2005, six of the fifty-three UNCHR members—China, Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe—were classified by Freedom House as some of the world’s “worst of the worst” abusers of human rights.
In 2001, ECOSOC removed the United States, a founding member, for a year from the Human Rights Commission while welcoming Sudan as a new Vice-Chair. Because the enslavement and sexual exploitation of non-Muslims has been an accepted part of Sudanese Islamic culture for centuries, UNCHR guidelines — which made allowances for culture-specific norms — deemed Sudan worthy of a leadership position in the organization.
On March 15, 2006, one hundred seventy United Nations member states agreed to establish a new Human Rights Council to replace UNCHR.