The International Bill of Human Rights

AuthorMark Freeman, Gibran Van Ert
The primary source of international human rights law is the corpus of
human rights instruments known as the International Bill of Human
Rights. The Bill encompasses the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights 1948 (UDHR),1the International Covenant on Civil and Politi-
cal Rights 1966 (ICCPR),2the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (ICESCR),3and the Optional Protocol
to the ICCPR 1966 (ICCPR-OP1).4All but the latter will be addressed
in this chapter. The ICCPR-OP1 will be discussed in Chapter Fourteen.
Although it is formally part of the International Bill of Human Rights,
the ICCPR-OP1 establishes no new rights; instead, it establishes proce-
dures for the vindication of rights proclaimed in the ICCPR.
While dozens of human rights instruments exist today on a wide
range of themes, users of international human rights law continue to be
most familiar with and have greatest recourse to the instruments com-
prising the International Bill of Human Rights. Other human rights
instruments examined in later chapters often only elaborate what is
already present in or implied by them. Any proper understanding of
human rights, therefore, requires an appreciation of the Bill.
chapter 4
1 GA res. 217(III) (1948).
2 [1976] CanTS no. 47.
3 [1976] CanTS no. 46.
4 [1976] CanTS no. 47. Now there is also the Second Optional Protocol to the
ICCPR Aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty 1989 (ICCPR-OP2) 999
UNTS 302. It is discussed later in this chapter.
A. The Universal Declaration of
Human Rights
The UDHR was adopted by the UN General Assembly primarily in
response to the horrors of the Holocaust.5It was adopted without dis-
sent and with only a few abstentions. The draft text was prepared by
the UN Commission on Human Rights and drew upon the articulation
of civil and political rights in various domestic constitutions, particu-
larly those of the US and Western Europe. John Peters Humphrey, a
Canadian who at the time headed the secretariat of the Commission on
Human Rights, played a lead role in drafting it.6Canada abstained from
the vote to adopt the draft UDHR in the Third Committee of the UN
General Assembly. Apparently, the Canadian government was con-
cerned that Jehovah’s Witness adherents might take advantage of the
freedom of religion provision, and that “communists” working within
the public service might seek to exploit the UDHR’s right to freedom of
association.7Ultimately, however, Canada voted in favour of adopting
the UDHR on 10 December 1948.
The avowed purpose of the UDHR is to provide a comprehensive
statement of basic human rights and freedoms to serve as a “common
standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”8The lesson
from the Second World War, and in particular from the Holocaust, was
that international law had to do more than simply protect the sover-
eignty of states; it also had to protect individuals living within those
states. The UDHR was not a binding treaty but only a declaration of the
UN General Assembly. At the time of its adoption, most human rights
supporters — in particular NGOs and a number of smaller countries —
saw the UDHR as a major compromise. They had wanted a legally
binding Bill of Rights.9
70 international human rights law
5 On the UDHR generally, see J. Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human
Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1999) and A. Eide & T. Swinehart, eds., The Universal Declaration of
Human Rights: A Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
6 See J. Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure (New
York: Transnational Publishers, 1984) at 31–33, 42–43. More generally see A.J.
Hobbins, ed., On the Edge of Greatness: The Diaries of John Humphrey (Montreal
and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994–2000).
7 W. Schabas, International Human Rights Law and the Canadian Courts (Scarbor-
ough: Carswell, 1996) at 64–65.
8 UDHR preamble, above note 1.
9 L. Henkin et al., Human Rights (New York: Foundation Press, 1999) at 286.

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