International human rights and the international human rights system
The creation of a body of international human rights law is a product of years of negotiations and a major accomplishment of the United Nations. Today, there are about 100 universal human rights instruments and a large number of regional treaties. The term
instruments covers all the different documents that embody human rights standards: legally binding treaties, covenants and conventions (hard law), as well as commitments expressed in declarations, resolutions, guiding principles, codes of conduct etc. (soft law).The main foundation for this body of human rights law is the International Bill of Human Rights, consisting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocols. Human rights conventions or covenants are legally binding for those states that have ratified them, once they have entered into force after a sufficient number of ratifications. The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a treaty, but many of its provisions have become part of international customary law which is binding on all states.Annex 1 presents an overview of some of the main international and regional conventions, but the reader should consult the website of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (www.ohchr.org) for more details and an updated list of all existing treaties and ratification records.Numerous other standard-setting initiatives have been expressed by way of declarations,sets of principles, codes of conduct, guidelines etc., which are not legally binding but reflect basic minimum standards for all UN member states. For human rights monitors these instruments will often be useful tools in specific situations. They are especially helpful in training and public information campaigns on human rights. Experience shows that government officials often make no distinction between so-called ‘hard law’ and ‘soft law’ and view these instruments as binding standards that they must enforce and respect.
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