Let me begin this write-up with the crying call of the French Evolution (Bastille Day) on 14th July in 1789, namely “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. Later each of the rights has been developed in various UN Human Rights instruments.
When the Second World War was going on with such tragic toll of human beings on both sides, the leaders of the US and Britain declared in August 1941 certain common principles for a better future of the world. The Declaration was known as “Atlantic Charter.” Thereafter came the four-nation ( US, Britain, Russia and China) Moscow Declaration on October 30, 1943. It appears the Moscow Declaration of 1943 laid the foundation of the present day United Nations.
The Charter of the United Nations was signed on 26 June 1945, in San Francisco, at the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on International Organization, and came into force on 24 October 1945.
The language of the rights in the UN Charter presupposes the existence of human rights prior to the UN Charter adopted in 1945. A total of 51 original members joined that year; 50 of them signed the Charter at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco on 26 June 1945, while Poland, which was not represented at the conference, signed it on 15 October 1945.
Later after the Second World War, the UN General Assembly adopted a seminal document on 10th December, 1948 consisting of list of human rights. Every year the Human Rights Day on 10th December has been observed by countries across the world including Bangladesh.
The driving force behind the UN Declaration at the UN was reported to be Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the President of the US. The Declaration contained a list of rights to be enjoyed by an individual person (both male and female) without discrimination. The rights are indivisible, inalienable and consistent with dignity of a human being.
The Declaration contains a preamble (introduction) and 30 Articles. Let me cite a few Articles of the Declaration.
Article 1 lays down the philosophy upon which the Declaration is based and it reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The language is contemporaneous of the time and that is why only “brotherhood” and not “sisterhood” is mentioned. In those days, man included woman as well.
The language of the above Article defines the basic assumptions of the Declaration: (a) right to liberty and equality is every human being’s birthright and cannot be alienated, (b) human being is a rational being, is different from other animals because of many reasons. That is why, it is claimed that human beings are entitled to certain rights and freedom which other creatures do not ordinarily enjoy.
Article 3 of the Declaration, the cornerstone of the Declaration, proclaims the right to life, liberty and security of a person- a right essential to the enjoyment of all other rights.
It is worth noting that although the Declaration was adopted as a non-binding form, subsequent commitment by States has transformed it as a “Charter of Mankind”. In many countries, many rights are incorporated in their constitutions as “Fundamental Rights.” Furthermore the principles of the UN Charter especially described in Article 2 (6) are universal and must be adhered to by members and non-member-states.
The majority of legal authors claim that the Declaration has become a part of customary international law. That means that the customary international law has grown by common consent of countries and has contributed considerably to establishing peace and order among countries from ancient times to present day. Customary law is to be distinguished from Treaty–based binding law by countries which ratified or acceded to the Treaties. Such countries which are parties to the Treaties have the duty to enact legislative measures to implement the provisions of Treaties.
It took another 18 years because of the Cold War to two separate Treaties, known as, 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The UN Charter has contradictions and is discriminatory. First, while it proclaims loudly the equality of states, yet five permanent member-states (China, France, Russia, US and UK,) have “Veto powers”. Each one of them can kill any resolution of the UN Security Council (so-called Cabinet of the UN), even if a resolution seeks international peace and security. Therefore these five States are more than equal than the other States and as such the notion of equality is vanished from the UN Charter. It means some states are more equal than others.
Another point is the powers of the Secretary-General of the UN embodied by Article 99 of the UN Charter. Some UN experts interpret Article 99 to be preventive in nature. Article 99 simply states that “The Secretary General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security. I wish to emphasise that peace must relate to “international peace” and not just small skirmishes among the states.
A discriminatory situation at the UN is that during the last 73 years (1945-2018) no female Secretary General of the UN has been appointed, although the Charter makes it known quite boisterously that all persons ( male and female) are equal . Analysts say that there are many former or present women Prime Ministers/Foreign Ministers who could be easily selected for the position of the Secretary General.
The UN Charter has been amended in 1963, 1965 and 1971 by the General Assembly under Article 108 of the UN Charter, mainly to enlarge various committees of the UN as the number of member-states is now 193. (In 1945 it was only 51.
Do we need UN? Yes we do. The UN is a necessity for all states-big and small, as well as rich and poor. During the era of globalisation, the world has become a “global village”
In 1958, when I was in London, I recall that a British singer Tommy Steele, the first teen idol and rock and roll star used to sing: “I have got the whole world in my hand”. Little did I realise then that his message would came to a reality. With the technology of “Internet, You Tube and Google search engines”, the world has come under the grasp of smart i-phones for anything and everything happening across the world.
Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva