50 Years of the Human Rights Covenants

07.10.2016 - Article

Foreign Minister Steinmeier hosted a conference on 7 October to mark this occasion.

The first human rights covenants binding under international law were adopted 50 years ago – a milestone in international law. Foreign Minister Steinmeier hosted a conference yesterday (7 October) to mark this occasion. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was his guest.

Foreign Minister Steinmeier giving his speech
Foreign Minister Steinmeier giving his speech© AA

“Human rights are being trampled upon. Not everywhere, but much too often and in far too many places in this world,” Foreign Minister Steinmeier noted right at the start of his speech. In his opinion this anniversary provided little cause for celebration in these crisis-stricken times. This made it far more important to remind ourselves of our universal task of standing up for human rights worldwide. Shortly before giving his speech, Steinmeier had spoken in depth with Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, about the situation in Syria. By attending the conference, the two men put a spotlight on the importance of the international legal foundations underlying all work for human rights.

A spotlight on international law and human rights

In December 1966, in the midst of the Cold War, the UN General Assembly in New York voted on texts produced during 16 years of difficult negotiations. At this time, when East and West formed opposing blocs, tireless work was needed to address one of the most important issues for people all around the globe. How can elementary rights, rights which apply to every single person simply because they are a human being, be protected? What rights can be enshrined as universal, inalienable and indivisible human rights?

Foreign Minister Steinmeier with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein
Foreign Minister Steinmeier with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein© AA

The United Nations General Assembly answered these questions by adopting two international instruments, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICESCR primarily guarantees rights that individuals can claim from the community, such as the right to social security, education, work and the highest attainable standard of healthcare. The ICCPR protects individuals’ rights with respect to freedom and dignity. The rights it enshrines include the right to life, freedom from torture and slavery, and freedom of religion and opinion.

A step forward for civilisation

The 168 states that have ratified the Covenants so far have pledged to guarantee that their citizens enjoy the rights enshrined therein and have to demonstrate that they are doing so by providing regular reports. 114 states have additionally signed an Optional Protocol which enables citizens to complain about violations of the Covenant directly to the UN Human Rights Committee.

The adoption of the two UN Covenants by consensus marked a great step forward for civilisation – that was something the participants at this Berlin conference all agreed. They also represent an international achievement that is non-negotiable for Germany, as Foreign Minister Steinmeier made plain. In his words: “If we want to shape a more peaceful and just world, we have to put the respect for human rights at its very heart.”

Find out more:

Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the event “50 Years of the Human Rights Covenants”

Germany's human rights policy

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