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November 30, 2016

50 Years Later, Human Rights at a Crossroads

This year, the international community celebrates the 50th anniversary of two conventions which together with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, form the base of the international human rights framework: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Throughout the last five decades, these two treaties — which gave human rights principles the force of binding law — have made immense progress towards the fulfillment of human rights worldwide. They have enabled and inspired the work of activists, lawyers, civil society groups, religious leaders, grassroots leaders and communities.

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) is proud to have been a part of this trajectory of change. For over 25 years, ABA ROLI’s efforts in more than 100 countries have been mindful of the outcomes ultimately sought: to promote justice, economic opportunity and human dignity through the rule of law. A strong rule of law is a precondition and an enabling factor for people’s ability to enjoy their basic human rights. 

For ABA ROLI, rule of law development is much more than technical assistance to strengthen judiciaries or build capacity within certain institutions. ABA ROLI works to advance human rights by supporting the adoption of legal frameworks that integrate international standards into domestic law; strengthening institutions; empowering civil society activists; fighting violations, abuses and inequalities that come from the abuse of power and exclusion; and seeking remedies and redress when human rights violations take place.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the ICCPR and the ICESCR, ABA ROLI takes a moment to look back and celebrate the headway that has been made to advance human rights. Internationally, several other binding international treaties have been adopted after these two landmark treaties. These treaties raised the bar on the protection of human rights for women, children, people with disabilities and migrants.

Linked to the expansion and development of these international legal tools that were set in motion by the adoption of the ICCPR and the ICESCR, many countries have reformed their constitutions and legislations to bring them in line with the ICCPR, the ICESCR and the other major conventions. ABA ROLI has been a part of advancing constitutional rights as well as substantive and due process legislation on issues ranging from anti-corruption, criminal justice reform, gender equality, electoral rights, trafficking in persons, anti-slavery legislation, religious freedom and freedom of expression (including online).

Accountability for human rights violations has also increased due to an international system through which all countries review each other’s human rights record periodically, the Universal Periodic Review.  Additionally, the various avenues available for individuals to make complaints at the international level about human rights violations in their countries help protect rights in specific cases. Finally, the work of three dozen independent experts and bodies that monitor and investigate human rights violations and abuses has also brought about change on the ground.  Accountability and remedies for human rights violations and abuses has also increased due to stronger and more engaged civil societies worldwide who have taken an active role in working with bar associations, civil society, organizations, and community-based organizations in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and North Africa.

Because of the change these human rights treaties have enabled, lives have significantly improved over the last few decades. The indicators are convincing: according to The Economist, the world’s poverty dropped by half between 1990 (when it stood at 43 percent) and 2010 (when it stood at 21 percent)[i]; 6.4 fewer children died of preventable causes in 2013 compared to 1990 because of increased vaccinations and better maternal and child health practices[ii]; illiteracy has dropped from 58 percent of the global population five decades ago to 15 percent to date[iii], to name just a few. 

At the same time, despite undeniable progress toward human rights and stronger rule of law, today the world is witness to incredible human suffering. Conflict and violence have caused the largest human migration in decades[iv], and the response from the developed world is insufficient and inadequate. Paradoxically, both authoritarianism and state fragility are present, resulting in backsliding on human rights for large segments of the world’s population. Xenophobia, nationalism, racism and hatred are gaining force across the developed world. Political rights and civil liberties have declined in dozens of countries in recent years.

This suggests that now more than ever there is a need to maintain the forward movement that the ICCPR and the ICESCR set in motion, and to prevent a regression of human rights internationally. ABA ROLI believes that working together with local partners from civil society and governments to strengthen the rule of law is the best bet in securing and realizing the vision shaped by the world’s nations when they adopted the treaties 50 years ago. 

To learn more about our work with human rights, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected]


[i] The Economist, “How did the global poverty rate halve in 20 years”?, available at

[ii] Child Mortality Report 2015, available at

[iii] Our world in data, “Literacy”, available at

[iv] UNHCR, Global Trends Report 2016, available at