Human Rights Glossary
Note: Terms in this glossary are found in bold in the text of Compasito.
Affirmative action: Action taken by a government or private institution to make up for past discrimination in education or employment.
African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (African Charter): A Regional human rights treaty for the African continent adopted by the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU) in 1981.
American Convention on Human Rights (American Convention): A human rights treaty adopted by the Organisation for American States (OAS) in 1969. It covers North, Central and South America.
Codification, Codify: The process of formalizing law or rights into written instruments.
Collective rights: The rights of groups to protect their interests and identities; sometimes referred to as ‘third generation rights’.
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). Both were adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976.
Convention: Binding agreement between states; used synonymously with treaty and Covenant. A convention is stronger than a declaration because it is legally binding for governments that have ratified it. When, for example, the UN General Assembly adopts a convention, it creates international norms and standards. Once the UN General Assembly adopts a convention, Member States can then ratify the convention, turning it into international law.
Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Women’s Convention, CEDAW) (adopted 1979; entered into force 1981): The first legally binding international document prohibiting discrimination against women and obligating governments to take affirmative action to advance the equality of women.
Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (Race Convention, CERD) (Adopted 1965; entered into force 1969): Convention defining and prohibiting discrimination based on race.
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention, 1951) (Adopted 1948; entered into force 1951) : International convention defining and prohibiting genocide; the first international treaty of the United Nations.
Convention on the Rights of the Child (Children’s Convention, CRC) (adopted 1989; entered into force 1990): Convention setting forth a full spectrum of civil, cultural, economic, social, and political rights for children.
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (adopted 2006): the first contention affirming the human rights of people with disabilities of any kind, including physical and psycho-social.
Council of Europe: The Council of Europe, founded in 1949, is the first European intergovernmental organisation. Today its 48 members states cover virtually the entire continent of Europe. It seeks to develop common democratic and legal principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights.
Declaration: Document stating agreed upon principles and 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 organisations (NGOs). The UN General Assembly often issues influential but legally non-binding declarations.
Declaration on the Rights of the Child: Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1959, this non-binding instrument sets forth ten general principles, which later formed the basis for the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was adopted in 1989.
Entering into force: the process through which a treaty becomes fully binding on the states that have ratified it. This happens when the minimum number of ratifications called for by the treaty has been achieved.
European Convention for the Prevention of Torture: A regional human rights treaty adopted in 1987 by the Council of Europe that aims to prevent various violations against people who are detained by a public authority in places like prisons, juvenile detention centres, police stations, refugee camps or psychiatric hospitals.
European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention, European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR): A regional human rights treaty adopted in 1950 by the Council of Europe. All Council of Europe member states are party to the ECHR, and new members are expected to ratify the convention at the earliest opportunity.
European Cultural Convention: (Adopted by the Council of Europe, 1954; entered into force 1955): A regional treaty that provides the official framework for the Council of Europe’s work on education, culture, heritage, youth and sport. A complement to the European Convention, the Cultural Convention seeks to safeguard European culture and to develop mutual understanding and the appreciation of cultural diversity among its various peoples.
European Social Charter (Adopted by the Council of Europe 1962; revised 1996): A regional treaty that guarantees social and economic human rights; it complements the European Convention, which principally addresses civil and political rights.
Evolving capacity: A principle used in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) that recommends greater exercise of a child’s rights in relation to his or her growing cognitive and emotional maturity.
First-generation rights: a term referring to all civil and political human rights such as voting, expression, religion, assembly, fair trials, and life. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) principally codifies these rights. Because the term suggests a hierarchy of civil and political rights over second generation rights, or economic and social rights, it is increasingly falling from use.
Formal education: the structured education system that runs from primary school to university and includes specialized programmes for technical and professional training.
Gender: A social construct that informs roles, attitudes, values and relationships regarding women and men. While sex is determined by biology, gender is determined by society, almost always functioning to subordinate women to men.
Geneva Conventions: Four treaties adopted in 1949 under the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. These treaties revise and expanded original treaties adopted in 1864 and 1929. They address the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers and sailors, prisoners of war and civilians under enemy control.
Humanitarian law: the body of law, mainly based on the Geneva Conventions, that protects certain persons in times of armed conflict, helps victims and limits the methods and means of combat in order to minimize destruction, loss of life and unnecessary human suffering.
Human rights framework: The evolving and interrelated body of international instruments that define human rights and establish mechanisms to promote and protect them.
Human rights instruments: any formal, written document of a state or states that sets forth rights as non-binding principles (a declaration) or codifies rights that are legally binding on those states that ratify them (a covenant, treaty, or convention).
Inalienable: Refers to rights that belong to every person and cannot be taken from a person under any circumstances.
Indivisible: Refers to the equal importance of each human rights law. A person cannot be denied a human right on the grounds that it is ‘less important’ or ‘non-essential’.
Informal education: The lifelong process whereby every individual acquires attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from the educational influences and resources in his or her own environment and from daily experience (e.g. with family and neighbours, in the marketplace and library, from the mass media and play).
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 organisations (IGOs): Organisations sponsored by several governments that seek to coordinate their efforts; some are regional (e.g. the Council of Europe, the Organisation of African Unity), some are alliances (e.g. the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO); and some are dedicated to a specific purpose (e.g. the World Health Organisation [WHO] and The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation [UNESCO]).
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (Adopted1966, and entered into force 1976): The ICCPR declares that all people have a broad range of civil and political rights and sets up ways to monitor their respect by the member states.
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.
International Labour Organisation (ILO): Established in 1919 as part of the Versailles Peace Treaty, the ILO became a specialized agency of the UN in 1946. Under its mandate to improve working conditions and promote social justice, the ILO has passed a number of conventions pertaining to the human rights of children, especially concerning child labour.
Member States: Countries that are members an intergovernmental organisations (e.g. the United Nations, the Council of Europe).
Non-formal education: Any planned programme of personal and social education outside the formal education curriculum that is designed to improve a range of knowledge, skills and competencies.
Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs): Organisations formed by people outside of government. NGOs monitor the proceedings of human rights bodies such as the Human Rights Council of the United Nations 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 Scouts); others may be small and local (e.g. an organisation 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 have official consultative status at the UN.
Optional Protocol: A treaty that modifies another treaty (e.g. adding additional procedures or provisions). It is called ‘optional’ because a government that has ratified the original treaty can choose whether or not to ratify the changes made in the protocol.
Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict: 2000 Amendment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) that raises the minimum age for participation in armed conflict from the original fifteen to eighteen years.
Positive discrimination: See affirmative action.
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.
Second-generation rights: a term referring to economic, social and cultural rights, such as an adequate standard of living, health care, housing and education. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights principally codifies these rights. Because the term suggests a hierarchy of civil and political rights over economic and social rights, it is increasingly falling from usage.
Shadow report: An unofficial report prepared by institutes or individuals representing civil society submitted to a committee monitoring a human rights treaty. Such reports usually contradict or add to the official report on treaty compliance and implementation submitted by a government as part of its treaty obligations.
Solidarity rights: See collective rights.
Special Rapporteur: A person chosen by a UN human rights body to report on a particular theme (e.g. on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; on violence against women) or on the human rights situation in a particular country.
Stereotype: An oversimplified, generalised and often unconscious preconception about people or ideas that may lead to prejudice and discrimination.
Third generation rights: See collective rights.
Treaty: Formal agreement between states that defines and modifies their mutual duties and obligations; used synonymously with convention and covenant. When Member States ratify a treaty that has been adopted by the UN General Assembly, the articles of that treaty become part of its domestic legal obligations.
UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund): Mandated by the United Nations General Assembly, UNICEF advocates for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential. UNICEF is guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and strives to establish it as enduring ethical principles and international standards of behaviour towards children.
Universality: A principle that all human rights are held by all persons in all states and societies in the world.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration, 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 non-binding, through time its various provisions have become so widely recognized that it can now be said to be customary international law.
World Health Organisation (WHO): an intergovernmental organisation under the auspices of the United Nations that works to promote health worldwide.
Xenophobia: A fear of foreigners, of persons from other countries or of things foreign generally. Xenophobia can lead to discrimination, racism, violence and even armed conflict against foreigners.