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Human Rights Review

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Follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights, New York 1998

II. Universality of human rights

10. The World Conference on Human Rights not only reaffirmed the universality of human rights and the related commitments of States but also unanimously endorsed the universality of all the basic principles that should guide the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. Since the World Conference, the international community has continuously reiterated the validity of the universality of human rights, recognizing that although the significance of national and regional particularities, as well as various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds, must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

11. The universal ratification of relevant international instruments called for by the World Conference would provide the most stable and effective foundation for ensuring respect for and observance of human rights in all countries. The World Conference specifically recommended that in the framework of the five-year implementation review of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, progress towards the goal of universal ratification of international human rights treaties should be addressed (sect. II, para. 100). Five years later, an increase of nearly 28 per cent of new ratifications can be noted (see figure I).

12. The number of countries which have not ratified the core human rights treaties remains, however, distressing. Almost one third of all countries have not acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. More than 40 countries continue to have difficulties in ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Although it is encouraging that over 30 States have ratified or acceded to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment since 1993, it is, however, a cause of serious concern that almost half of the United Nations Member States are not parties to this Convention which prohibits torture, one of the most atrocious violations against human dignity. Equally disappointing is the fact that eight years since its adoption by the General Assembly, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families has only nine States parties, less than half of the ratifications necessary for it to enter into force. Progress in adhering to the existing optional communication procedures is also not satisfactory (see figure II). This is regrettable since access to these procedures makes the respective human rights treaties living law for the people who claim that their rights have been violated.

13. Unfortunately, declarations announcing withdrawals from treaty obligations have also been noted. Although isolated, these declarations are particularly disappointing since they oppose the general understanding of the World Conference that countries should take bold steps to strengthen their commitments under international human rights law.

14. The call of the World Conference to avoid, as far as possible, the resort to reservations to international human rights instruments (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, sect. I, para. 26 and sect. II, para. 5), must be noted as another area in which results have been less than satisfactory. Many new ratifications have been accompanied by substantive reservations, and few reservations made previously have been withdrawn. This observation also applies to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, notwithstanding the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action's explicit statement of concern about the scope of reservations to these two treaties (sect. II, paras. 39 and 46).

15. The General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights have systematically reiterated the call for universal ratification of human rights instruments. The Secretary-General and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights launched in 1994 and 1997 campaigns to that end by sending letters to all heads of State, prime ministers and foreign ministers. In the context of preparations for the 1998 commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Inter-Parliamentary Union adopted a special resolution on 16 September 1997, calling on all Parliaments and their members to strengthen the impact of international human rights law on domestic legal systems, through, inter alia, the ratification of still outstanding treaties, as well as ensuring the consistency of national legislation with international human rights standards. In connection with this resolution, the High Commissioner wrote to all the world's Parliaments, calling for the universal ratification and implementation of human rights instruments.

16. With a view to facilitating the ratification process and the fulfilment of commitments under ratified treaties, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights offers technical assistance at the request of States. Two regional meetings of high-level government officials have been organized since the World Conference to discuss various aspects of the human rights treaty system. The meetings were held for the African and Asia and Pacific regions at Addis Ababa (14-17 May 1996) and at Amman (1-4 September 1997) respectively.

17. It is vital that the international community reinforces its efforts towards the ratification of international human rights instruments. A commitment to the universal ratification of the main human rights treaties during the next five years would be a decisive step in this important process.

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