The vision of globally enforced standards of human rights depends on national frameworks of human rights laws, administered by adequately resourced institutions, independent of political influence. Such ideals are beyond the capacity, or intent, of many governments.
For example, the process of ending discrimination against women has been handicapped by the need to amend colonial-era laws which reflect the values of that period. Outdated property laws relating to marriage and inheritance in sub-Saharan Africa hamper progress towards equitable land ownership by women.
The shifting cultural landscape of modern times is especially problematic for Islamic States whose constitutions are founded on strict interpretation of the Koran, a text dating from the 7th century.
A number of these states have exercised reservations in the ratification process, a formal device which permits exemption from contentious sections of international law, such as those relating to homosexuality and the rights of women. However, many Islamic scholars advocate reinterpretation of the Koran in the light of modern values.
Nevertheless, there remain examples of extreme prejudice, such as the unjust treatment of women who are victims of rape or accused of adultery. Even the simplest reforms have been frustrated; it is only in recent months that women in Saudi Arabia have been permitted to drive cars or enter a sports stadium.
Many of the more advanced economies also stumble over international standards, typically when human rights laws prove inconvenient to domestic political culture. These barriers restrain the global pace of reform, as has the failure of the US to ratify CEDAW (the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).
Where national laws fail to protect rights, or are inadequately enforced, grievances can be referred to higher regional authorities. One example is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Ultimate oversight lies with the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the 47-country body established in 2006. The HRC monitors the implementation of human rights through Universal Periodic Reviews. These are four-yearly self-assessments conducted by every country, by reference to fulfilment of its overall obligations.
Periodic national reports are also submitted for each core international human rights treaty. Together with information from other sources, these are scrutinised by committees of experts, known as Human Rights Treaty Bodies, whose findings are made public.
The HRC also engages independent experts, known as Special Rapporteurs or Special Representatives, to investigate specific topics or countries of concern. These experts act in a voluntary and independent capacity.
Each of these UN enforcement mechanisms is supported administratively by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner, currently Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan, is responsible for promoting the recognition of human rights, both internationally and within other UN agencies.
The HRC has no powers of enforcement, its influence lying more in disclosure of its forensic work. Global action against an individual country can be authorised only by the UN Security Council. For example, the UK government is unlikely to suffer any meaningful sanction, despite declining to respond to more than half of the recommendations in its 2017 Periodic Review.
more Human Rights briefings (updated March 2018)
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
International Human Rights Law
Women’s Rights in International Law
Source material and useful links