Fifty Years of Success" could be the headline for the anniversary of the adoption in 1966 by the United Nations General Assembly of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Human rights have been the most dominant driver of change in the post-second World War period and particularly since the end of the cold war in 1989. In this article I will outline the impact the Covenants have had on the pursuit of human rights worldwide and the path forward at a time when the human rights regime is being challenged.
The world has advanced in many of the areas addressed in the two Covenants, offering greater protections today. Fifty years ago, torture was considered a normal part of police investigation. It is still widespread but is utilized less frequently. More importantly, all actors--police, prosecutors, judges, defendants and citizens--now know that torture is wrong and a violation of human rights. Furthermore, thanks to the International Covenants, the awareness and understanding of discrimination, in particular racial discrimination, is deeper than before. Finally, today, it is commonly understood that all children have a right to primary school education. The prohibition against torture and discrimination, and the right to education, have contributed to the creation of a more humane world. This can also be said with regard to most of the rights recognized in the Covenants.
The two Covenants, along with other human rights instruments, established a common language that could be used globally and locally, at all levels of governance. That language allowed for difficult discussions on the death penalty, slavery and gender equality. Without the ability to speak openly about these issues, no changes would have occurred. The two Covenants and other human rights instruments also established a legal framework for international legal scholars and lawyers to develop a new body of law that today is applied on all continents. Until the early 1990s, it was possible to learn all aspects of human rights law. Today, one would be lucky to fully master all aspects of even one of the rights inscribed in the Covenants.
The United Nations human rights treaty bodies have played a key role in this development, in particular the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Their work has had a direct impact worldwide, leading to changes in national law, policy and practice, as well as bringing redress to individual victims. All States are parties to at least one of the core international human rights treaties, and more than 75 per...