Appendix 3:
A Human Rights Glossary

Affirmative Action: Action taken by a government or private institution to make up for past discrimination in education, work, or promotion on the basis of gender, race, ethnic origin, religion, or disability.

Civil and Political Rights: The rights of citizens to liberty and equality; sometimes referred to as first generation rights. Civil rights include freedom to worship, to think and express oneself, to vote, to take part in political life, and to have access to information.

Codification, Codify: The process of bringing customary international law to written form.

Collective Rights: The rights of groups to protect their interests and identities.

Commission on Human Rights: Body formed by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN to deal with human rights; one of the first and most important international human rights bodies.

Convention: Binding agreement between states; used synonymously with Treaty and Covenant. Conventions are stronger than Declarations because they are legally binding for governments that have signed them. When the UN General Assembly adopts a convention, it creates international norms and standards. Once a convention is adopted by the UN General Assembly, Member States can then Ratify the convention, promising to uphold it. Governments that violate the standards set forth in a convention can then be censured by the UN.

Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Women’s Convention) (adopted 1979; entered into force 1981): The first legally binding international document prohibiting discrimination against women and obligating governments to take affirmative steps to advance the equality of women.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (Children’s Convention) (adopted 1989; entered into force 1990): Convention setting forth a full spectrum of civil, cultural, economic, social, and political rights for children.

Covenant: Binding agreement between states; used synonymously with Convention and Treaty. The major international human rights covenants, both passed in 1966, are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Customary International Law: Law that becomes binding on states although it is not written, but rather adhered to out of custom; when enough states have begun to behave as though something is law, it becomes law "by use"; this is one of the main sources of international law.

Declaration: Document stating agreed upon standards but which is not legally binding. UN conferences, like the 1993 UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the 1995 World Conference for Women in Beijing, usually produce two sets of declarations: one written by government representatives and one by Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs). The UN General Assembly often issues influential but legally Nonbinding declarations.

Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC): A UN council of 54 members primarily concerned with population, economic development, human rights, and criminal justice. This high-ranking body receives and issues human rights reports in a variety of circumstances.

Economic, Social, Cultural Rights: Rights that concern the production, development, and management of material for the necessities of life. The right to preserve and develop one’s cultural identity. Rights that give people social and economic security, sometimes referred to as security-oriented or second generation rights. Examples are the right to food, shelter, and health care.

Environmental, Cultural, and Developmental Rights: Sometimes referred to as third generation rights, these rights recognize that people have the right to live in a safe and healthy environment and that groups of people have the right to cultural, political, and economic development.

Genocide: The systematic killing of people because of their race or ethnicity.

Human Rights: The rights people are entitled to simply because they are human beings, irrespective of their citizenship, nationality, race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, or abilities; human rights become enforceable when they are Codified as Conventions, Covenants, or Treaties, or as they become recognized as Customary International Law.

Human Rights Community: A community based on human rights, where respect for the fundamental dignity of each individual is recognized as essential to the functioning and advancement of society. A community that works to uphold each article of the UDHR.

Inalienable: Refers to rights that belong to every person and cannot be taken from a person under any circumstances.

Indigenous Peoples: People who are original or natural inhabitants of a country. Native Americans, for example, are the indigenous peoples of the United States.

Indivisible: Refers to the equal importance of each human rights law. A person cannot be denied a right because someone decides it is "less important" or "nonessential."

Interdependent: Refers to the complementary framework of human rights law. For example, your ability to participate in your government is directly affected by your right to express yourself, to get an education, and even to obtain the necessities of life.

Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs): Organizations sponsored by several governments that seek to coordinate their efforts; some are regional (e.g., the Council of Europe, the Organization of African Unity), some are alliances (e.g., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO); and some are dedicated to a specific purpose (e.g., the UN Centre for Human Rights, and The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO).

International Bill of Human Rights: The combination of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its optional Protocol, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): Adopted in 1966, and entered into force in 1976. The ICCPR declares that all people have a broad range of civil and political rights. One of the components of the International Bill of Human Rights.

International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR): Adopted 1966, and entered into force 1976. The ICESCR declares that all people have a broad range of economic, social, and cultural rights. One of the components of the International Bill of Human Rights.

International Labor Organization (ILO): Established in 1919 as part of the Versailles Peace Treaty to improve working conditions and promote social justice; the ILO became a Specialized Agency of the UN in 1946.

Legal Rights: Rights that are laid down in law and can be defended and brought before courts of law.

Member States: Countries that are members of the United Nations.

Moral Rights: Rights that are based on general principles of fairness and justice; they are often but not always based on religious beliefs. People sometimes feel they have a moral right even when they do not have a legal right. For example, during the civil rights movement in the USA, protesters demonstrated against laws forbidding Blacks and Whites to attend the same schools on grounds that these laws violated their moral rights.

Natural Rights: Rights that belong to people simply because they are human beings.

Nonbinding: A document, like a Declaration, that carries no formal legal obligations. It may, however, carry moral obligations or attain the force of law as Customary International Law.

Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs): Organizations formed by people outside of government. NGOs monitor the proceedings of human rights bodies such as the Commission on Human Rights and are the "watchdogs" of the human rights that fall within their mandate. Some are large and international (e.g., the Red Cross, Amnesty International, the Girl Scouts); others may be small and local (e.g., an organization to advocate for people with disabilities in a particular city; a coalition to promote women’s rights in one refugee camp). NGOs play a major role in influencing UN policy, and many of them have official consultative status at the UN.

Political Rights: The right of people to participate in the political life of their communities and society. For example, the right to vote for their government or run for office. See Civil and Political Rights.

Protocol: A treaty which modifies another treaty (e.g., adding additional procedures or substantive provisions).

Ratification, Ratify: Process by which the legislative body of a state confirms a government’s action in signing a treaty; formal procedure by which a state becomes bound to a treaty after acceptance.

Reservation: The exceptions that States Parties make to a treaty (e.g., provisions that they do not agree to follow). Reservations, however, may not undermine the fundamental meaning of the treaty.

Self-Determination: Determination by the people of a territorial unit of their own political future without coercion from powers outside that region.

Signing, Sign: In human rights the first step in ratification of a treaty; to sign a Declaration, Convention, or one of the Covenants constitutes a promise to adhere to the principles in the document and to honor its spirit.

State: Often synonymous with "country"; a group of people permanently occupying a fixed territory having common laws and government and capable of conducting international affairs.

States Party(ies): Those countries that have Ratified a Covenant or a Convention and are thereby bound to conform to its provisions.

Treaty: Formal agreement between states that defines and modifies their mutual duties and obligations; used synonymously with Convention and Covenant. When conventions are adopted by the UN General Assembly, they create legally binding international obligations for the Member States who have signed the treaty. When a national government Ratifies a treaty, the articles of that treaty become part of its domestic legal obligations.

United Nations Charter: Initial document of the UN setting forth its goals, functions, and responsibilities; adopted in San Francisco in 1945.

United Nations General Assembly: One of the principal organs of the UN, consisting representatives of all member states. The General Assembly issues Declarations and adopts Conventions on human rights issues, debates relevant issues, and censures states that violate human rights. The actions of the General Assembly are governed by the United Nations Charter.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): Adopted by the general assembly on December 10, 1948. Primary UN document establishing human rights standards and norms. All member states have agreed to uphold the UDHR. Although the declaration was intended to be Nonbinding, through time its various provisions have become so respected by States that it can now be said to be Customary International Law.

Sources: Adapted from Julie Mertus et al., Local Action/Global Change, Ed O’Brien et al, HumanRights for All, and Frank Newman and David Weissbrodt, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process.


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