United Nations Issues a Declaration Against Torture

The United Nations led the way to further international agreements on the subject of human rights when it issued its first declaration against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of accused persons.

Summary of Event

Prior to World War II, nations rarely were willing to allow foreign interference regarding public officials’ treatment of their own citizens. This attitude changed quickly after the war, however. The revised attitude, a new international outlook, arose in part from reactions to the horrors committed by the Axis Powers. Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, U.N. (1975)
United Nations;human rights
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Torture;U.N. declaration
[kw]United Nations Issues a Declaration Against Torture (Dec. 9, 1975)
[kw]Declaration Against Torture, United Nations Issues a (Dec. 9, 1975)
[kw]Torture, United Nations Issues a Declaration Against (Dec. 9, 1975)
Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, U.N. (1975)
United Nations;human rights
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Torture;U.N. declaration
[g]North America;Dec. 9, 1975: United Nations Issues a Declaration Against Torture[02190]
[g]United States;Dec. 9, 1975: United Nations Issues a Declaration Against Torture[02190]
[c]Human rights;Dec. 9, 1975: United Nations Issues a Declaration Against Torture[02190]
[c]United Nations;Dec. 9, 1975: United Nations Issues a Declaration Against Torture[02190]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 9, 1975: United Nations Issues a Declaration Against Torture[02190]
Roosevelt, Eleanor
Sakharov, Andrei
Mandela, Nelson

The idea of human rights as having a global or universal application goes back many centuries. The concept of human rights sprouted from a philosophy that speculated about the purpose of government and the worth of the individual person. The concept was predicated on the belief that human beings exist for the good of themselves and that one role of governments should be to protect certain innate or natural rights of the individual. Theology, especially in the West, gave credibility to the Church’s argument of the infinite significance of human beings as creations by and for God. The central objective in defending human rights was to assign a set of rules to clarify the relationship between government and the individual. Most explanations of this relationship held that individuals have specific obligations to government, or the state, and government, in turn, has an equal, if not more compelling, duty to defend the inalienable rights of the individual.

History shows two major periods in which the concept of human rights made important headway in the West and eventually engulfed at least the imagination of intellectuals and leaders in non-Western states. The initial wave had its emergence in the seventeenth century and its finale in the late eighteenth century. English, French, and American thinkers such as John Locke, Voltaire, and James Madison claimed that human beings are imbued with fundamental rights that come from God or from Nature and that such rights are to be respected by government; people are within their rights to invoke these rights as justification for revolution against a harsh government. The Lockean concept is seen most profoundly in the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789). The idea of natural rights as basic civil rights was incorporated into the constitutions of a considerable number of countries.

The second eruption of human rights concern and agitation occurred in the 1930’s. It grew out of revulsion against genocide and massive violations of the rights of accused persons by totalitarian regimes. The concept of human rights was strengthened by the defeat of totalitarian countries by the United States and its allies in World War II. The inhuman treatment of millions of people by the Nazis prompted the founders of the United Nations, at the Conference on International Organizations in San Francisco in 1945, to place priority on the formulation of a declaration on fundamental human rights. The charter of the new United Nations required the enactment of appropriate declarations and conventions to safeguard human rights. It was unclear how diverse nations, democracies and communist nations alike, could agree on an international bill of rights.

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman Truman, Harry S. appointed Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to lead the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Commission on Human Rights, U.N. Roosevelt became chair of the commission and guided its proceedings through unstable political waters. She understood that the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, viewed human rights differently; her job would be to blend the differences into an acceptable international bill of rights. The United States wanted a bill stressing political freedom, free speech, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, whereas the Soviets and their allies wanted to underscore economic freedoms, such as the right to a decent standard of living, adequate housing, and affordable food.

The drafting and adoption process of the Commission on Human Rights took two years. On the night of December 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. (1948) The declaration was only a recommendation; member nations were not bound to adhere to its lofty principles. The communists’ economic freedoms were prominently set in the declaration: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.” The declaration also offered protection from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, but “arbitrary” was not defined. This was only a beginning; the Universal Declaration, if it were to have genuine meaning, needed to be backed up with international treaties and enforcement agencies.

More than twenty years passed before that goal was achieved. In 1966, the General Assembly accepted draft texts of two treaties as the definitive basis for an international bill of rights: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966) Another decade passed before the two covenants entered into force in 1976. More than eighty nations became signatories of those treaties.

In addition to these two treaties, known together as the International Bill of Rights, International Bill of Rights, U.N. (1966) the United Nations established several other international norms concerning human rights. One grouping has the status of recommendation, instructing nations what is right to do in respect to the treatment of their citizens. The second grouping is that of binding treaties.

Conventions or treaties are legally binding and thus require a large amount of time to draft and to be enacted by the U.N. General Assembly. A declaration simply announces a principle or norm of what the international community considers to be appropriate behavior within certain contexts. Nevertheless, declarations are essential for understanding the conventions, which require nations to observe and enforce the edicts of the United Nations. Accession to conventions by states is not always clear, and enforcement is unsure. Some conventions grow quickly and logically from declarations, as did the convention against genocide. Others are more laborious—the declaration against torture falls into this category.

The Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was a major triumph for the United Nations, as it struck at the internal norms of the nation-state. It demanded that public officials renounce and thoroughly reject what many people believe to be an innate instinct of the human species—to inflict pain on those persons who violate taboos and norms of the society. The declaration exactingly defines torture, for example, as “intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession.” Torture, the declaration states, is an offense to human dignity; public officials cannot use even national emergencies to justify torture. States must take requisite measures to prevent torture, and in all states torture is to be regarded as an offense against the criminal laws. Alleged victims of torture are given the right to impartial examination, and victims of torture must have redress at law. Any information gained from torture may not be used as evidence against any person.

The twelve articles of the declaration on torture contain reasonable guidelines for governments to follow in monitoring their own public officials. The U.N. convention on torture, which followed in 1984, gave grit to the convictions stated in the 1975 declaration.


Ironically, in the same year as the U.N. General Assembly’s declaration against torture, Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, received the Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Andrei Sakharov[Sakharov] for his advocacy of human rights. Sakharov had come to realize the monstrosity of his invention and had worked with deep conviction and passion for peace and protection of political critics of the Soviet government. He called on compatriots to demand political equality and the right of the Soviet people to make choices. Nelson Mandela, a black political activist in South Africa, had been sentenced in 1964 to life imprisonment for antigovernment activities. Mandela described himself as an African patriot who was working for the establishment of a nonracial democracy. Initially, the world paid little attention to Mandela’s imprisonment. Later events outside South Africa, specifically in New York City at the United Nations, focused a spotlight on the plights of Mandela and other prisoners of conscience during the course of the next twenty-five years.

The U.N. Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment led to various other declarations on human rights and to a number of treaties. The impact of these pronouncements and treaties is immeasurable. They established a global norm for proper treatment of accused persons and actually led to the liberation of certain political prisoners. Both Sakharov and Mandela benefited from the international condemnation of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of dissidents. Sakharov and Mandela were not only set at liberty by the governments of their respective countries, the Soviet Union and the Republic of South Africa, but they were also permitted to assume well-defined and prominent roles in the political institutions they had previously attempted to reform.

Persistent pressure, through the declarations and treaties on human rights promulgated by the United Nations and its member states, had a surprising impact on communist countries concerning the way their governments treated accused persons and in democratizing their political processes. The most pivotal effect was on the Soviet Union itself, an effect shown by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Gorbachev, Mikhail declaration of his policy of glasnost Glasnost in 1985. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union into a loose grouping of independent states in 1991-1992, a third period of human rights seemed to be starting. Unfortunately, this new spirit did not extend to all of the troubled areas of the world. Political instability, civil war, and rising terrorism continued to spawn violations of human rights and the persistent use of torture by governments and rebel groups alike. Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, U.N. (1975)
United Nations;human rights
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Torture;U.N. declaration

Further Reading

  • Amnesty International. Report on Torture. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. Excellent account of the history of torture. Demonstrates that although Western societies often practice their much-acclaimed values, demonstrating respect for the rights of individuals, they have also often employed torture during times of war or social stress.
  • Bailey, George. The Making of Andrei Sakharov. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Presents a solid account of the factors that shaped Sakharov’s passion for peace and proper treatment of prisoners of conscience. Shows the depth of Sakharov’s personal courage.
  • Burgers, Herman, and Hans Danelius. The United Nations Convention Against Torture: A Handbook on the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. London: Martinus Nijhoff, 1988. Comprehensive treatise on human rights since World War II. Especially useful for scholars and general readers who want to understand the major efforts of the United Nations to establish a global standard for treatment of accused persons by public officials.
  • Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House, 2001. Explores the history of the declaration and Roosevelt’s role in its adoption. Includes photographs, index, and extensive appendixes.
  • Lauren, Paul Gordon. The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen. 2d ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Scholarly history of the evolution of the concept of the defense of human rights was originally published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Includes selected bibliography and index.
  • Rodley, Nigel S. The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Describes the efforts of the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations to eliminate torture and other mistreatments by governments.

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