Uniting Our Shared Humanitarian Values and Principles

The United Nations Declarations, Conventions and International Law


On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted by Canadian John Peters Humphries, the Declaration opened up a new era of an emerging global humanitarian vision and consensus after years of global warfare.  The Declaration marks one of the great achievements of the United Nations.  This comprehensive body of law provided an internationally protected code of human rights for the first time in history. 


Since then, the Universal Declaration has provided a foundation from which other treaties, conventions and protocols have been made into international law.  The United Nations gradually expanded human rights law to include rights for women, children, disabled persons, minorities, migrant workers and other vulnerable groups. Today, virtually every United Nations agency is involved to some degree in the protection of human rights.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights works to strengthen and coordinate the various efforts of the many UN agencies to protect and promote human rights of all persons around the world. The Secretary-General has made human rights the central theme that unifies the Organization’s work. 


Since the 1990s, the pursuit of a global ethic for all nations has hastened. In 1995, the United Nations Commission on Global Governance called for a "global civic ethic" based on common moral values.  That same year, a report by the World Commission on Culture and Development – chaired by former UN secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuellar – spoke of the need for "global ethics."  In 1997, the 30 former heads of state making up the Interaction Council drafted a "Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities", a theme taken two years later by UNESCO in its "Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities."  In 1999, UNESCO’s Division of Philosophy and Ethics produced “A Common Framework for the Ethics of the 21st Century.”


Among the United Nations most important achievements has been the development of a body of international law – conventions, treaties and standards – that play a central role in promoting economic and social development, as well as international peace and security. Over the years, the United Nations has sponsored over 500 multilateral agreements, which address a broad range of common concerns among states and are legally binding for the countries that ratify them. 


Treaty is a generic term for the various types of international agreements.  Two types of treaties are Charters and Conventions, which are formal agreements governed by international law.  A Charter is a global treaty to which all countries are legally bound, such as the Charter of the United Nations that created the UN in 1945.  A Convention is also a legally binding document, but only for those member countries that sign.  Some landmark conventions include The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child signed in 1990, the Convention against Torture signed in 1984 and the Ottawa Convention On The Prohibition Of Landmines signed in 1997.    


The Declarations represent a set of goals, but are not always legally binding.  The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights agreed to in 1948 sets the standard for human rights to which the signatories aspire yet are not necessarily obligated to meet.  However, declarations serve as a mechanism to show intent to develop legally binding international agreements around issues of global importance and are important international treaties.  Other international agreements include the less formal protocol and memorandum of understanding.


The UN has been in the forefront of tackling problems as they take on an international dimension, providing the legal framework for regulating the use of the oceans, protecting the environment, regulating migrant labor, curbing drug trafficking and combating terrorism, to mention a few. 



Each human being is special and unique.  Yet each one is a combination of cultures, religions, values and beliefs.  These are the factors that we all share and bring us together. It is through a sense of world citizenship with our fellow human beings that we find the common ground allowing us to resolve our differences peacefully and to help others when the need arises.  It allows us to celebrate each other’s cultures and religions while strengthening the common values we all hold dear.  The United Nations is the manifestation of these common values and it has become the catalyst and the forum for global discussion and consensus building.  Through national and international efforts to promote a new sense of global citizenship, there is an ongoing push to make our world a better place in which to live.