Seventy years on since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948, this post examines the evolution of a right that was not included in the Declaration but is often seen as a precondition for the enjoyment of other human rights: the right to peace. It reviews UN declarations adopted over the last half-century for the purpose of recognising the right to peace and the extent to which the latest one issued in December 2016 adds to or detracts from these efforts.

The right to peace in international law

Two founding instruments of the modern international order refer to peace as an overriding objective. On the one hand, the UN Charter declares in its first article that the primary purpose of the UN is ‘[t]o maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace’.[1] On the other hand, the preamble of the UDHR proclaims that the advent of a world in which human beings enjoy freedom from fear, alongside other fundamental rights, is ‘the highest aspiration of the common people’.[2] In its article 28, it also states that ‘[e]veryone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.’[3]

In 1978, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Declaration on the Preparation of Societies for Life in Peace calling on states to recognise that:

Every nation and every human being, regardless of race, conscience, language or sex, has the inherent right to life in peace. Respect for that right, as well as for the other human rights, is in the common interest of all mankind and an indispensable condition of advancement of all nations, large and small, in all fields.[4]

The linkage between peace and human rights was made more explicit in the 1984 UNGA Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace which stresses that ‘life without war serves as the primary international prerequisite for the material well-being, development and progress of countries, and for the full implementation of the rights and fundamental human freedoms proclaimed by the United Nations’.[5]

Although peace is widely recognised as a paramount objective of the contemporary world order, intrinsically linked to the realisation of human rights, efforts to recognise a right to peace at the global level have encountered a number of difficulties.[6] In the first place, there is no consensus on the way in which this right should be conceived, whether as an individual human right, a collective right of peoples, or both. While the 1978 Declaration affirms ‘the right of individuals, States and all mankind to life in peace’, the 1984 Declaration ‘proclaims that the peoples of our planet have a sacred right to peace’.[7]

Moreover, there is some uncertainty regarding the duty-holders of the right, the type and intensity of the obligations that its implementation would entail. The 1978 Declaration cautiously invites states to observe some principles with a view to ‘establishing, maintaining and strengthening a just and durable peace’.[8] The 1984 Declaration goes further by affirming that the preservation of the right to peace and its implementation ‘constitute a fundamental obligation of each State’.[9] However, showing the indeterminacy of this obligation, it calls on states and international organisations to ‘do their utmost to assist in implementing the right of peoples to peace through the adoption of appropriate measures at both the national and the international level’.[10]

As regards the elements forming part of the right to peace, international instruments recognising this right generally reaffirm the prohibition on aggressive wars and the principles of the renunciation to the use of force and the pacific settlement of disputes enshrined in the UN Charter. Relatedly, the 1978 Declaration states that ‘[a] basic instrument of the maintenance of peace is the elimination of the threat inherent in the arms race, as well as efforts towards general and complete disarmament, under effective international control’.[11] The 1984 Declaration similarly emphasises that ‘ensuring the exercise of the right of peoples to peace demands that the policies of States be directed towards the elimination of the threat of war, particularly nuclear war’.[12]

The right to peace has also been linked to the right to socio-economic development, disarmament having been identified as a goal instrumental to the realisation of both rights. The 1986 UNGA Declaration on the Right to Development thus provides that international peace and security are ‘essential elements for the realization of the right to development’.[13]  With a view to promote international peace and security, it calls on states to ‘do their utmost to achieve general and complete disarmament under effective international control, as well as to ensure that the resources released by effective disarmament measures are used for comprehensive development, in particular that of the developing countries’.[14]

In a declaration of 1997 aiming to revive discussions on the human right to peace, the Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) emphasised that ‘[l]asting peace is a prerequisite for the exercise of all human rights and duties’ and that peace, development and democracy are mutually reinforcing.[15] He observed that new human rights have been recognised since the adoption of the UDHR and called for the addition of ‘the right which underlies them all: the right to peace’.[16] Along the same line, the UNGA issued a Declaration in 1999 aiming to promote a culture of peace through, inter alia, education, sustainable economic and social development, democratic participation, respect for human rights, and disarmament.[17]

The 2016 Declaration on the Right to Peace

In June 2009, the UN Human Rights Council requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to convene an expert workshop on the right to peace.[18]  In the course of this workshop, several participants observed that there were serious challenges in clarifying the scope and content of the right to peace due to a lack of consensus among states.[19] The issue of disarmament was particularly controversial owing to national security concerns.[20] Some experts noted that previous initiatives to recognise the right to peace at the international level had been resisted by a number states, mostly Western developed ones.[21] Indeed, this group of states has generally voted against UN declarations and resolutions bearing on the right to peace.[22]

The following year, the Human Rights Council requested its Advisory Committee to prepare a draft declaration on the right to peace in consultation with member states, civil society and relevant stakeholders.[23] This draft built on previous declarations and developed the definition and elements of the right to peace.[24] Its first article established that ‘[i]ndividuals and peoples have a right to peace’ which is ‘universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated’. It identified states, ‘severally and jointly, or as part of multilateral organizations’, as the principal duty-holders of this right. Article 2 provided that the right to peace forms part of the right to human security including freedom from fear and want, thus recognising the close connection between peace, development and other social and economic rights. Article 3 urged states to work towards disarmament and ‘consider reducing military spending to the minimum level necessary to guarantee human security’. It further called on states to ‘urgently eliminate all weapons of mass destruction or of indiscriminate effect’. This comprehensive draft also included provisions on, inter alia, peace education, the right to conscientious objection to military service, peacekeeping and the right to development.[25]

In 2012, the Human Rights Council set up an intergovernmental working group to negotiate a declaration on the right to peace on the basis of the Advisory Committee’s draft.[26] During the first session of the working group in 2013, several delegations stressed that there was no international consensus on a right to peace which, whether conceived as a right of peoples or individuals, had no legal basis in international law.[27] Some states criticised elements of the draft on the ground that they were too vague or controversial to figure in the declaration, including the right to human security.[28] Other delegations emphasised that many aspects of the draft were already being addressed by existing mechanisms or UN agencies such as the Conference on Disarmament, the working group on the right to development and UNESCO.[29] Several states also highlighted the importance of the principle of national sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the right to self-defence set out in the UN Charter.[30]

In May 2014, the Chair-Rapporteur of the working group proposed a new draft voided of most elements perceived as controversial.[31] Composed of only 4 articles, this draft was considerably weaker than previous declarations. It did not refer explicitly to the right to peace but to the right to life ‘in a context in which all human rights, peace and development are fully implemented’.[32] Whereas the operative part was significantly shorter than in the original draft, a number of preambular paragraphs were added, in effect diluting the text. In the second and third sessions of the working group, non-governmental organisations deplored the deletion of all references to the right to human security, disarmament, the reduction of military spending and the right to conscientious objection to military service.[33]

The final version of the first article of the 2016 Declaration provides that ‘[e]veryone has the right to enjoy peace such that all human rights are promoted and protected and development is fully realized.’[34] As denounced by civil society organisations, this formulation falls short of a human right to peace and is less strong than wordings used in previous UN declarations. The final draft also broadens the range of duty-holders by referring, alongside states, to the UN, specialised agencies, international, regional, national and local organisations as well as civil society.[35] It does not mention disarmament, human security or other elements included in recent declarations on the human right to peace drafted by independent experts and civil society organisations.[36] Despite the purging of the language in the revised text, the Declaration was not adopted by consensus in the Human Right Council or the General Assembly.[37] In the latter, 34 states voted against it and 19 abstained, most of them Western developed states, including all members of the European Union.[38]


The right to peace is difficult to conceive in legal terms as it has several dimensions, aspects and implications for different branches of international law. Partly because it is linked to sensitive issues such as disarmament and socio-economic rights, it is controversial among states, especially the most developed ones. While the 2016 Declaration is more regressive than previous UN declarations on the subject, it adds to a substantial body of international instruments showing the importance of the right in the development of international law. As emphasised in most of these instruments, including the latest Declaration, peace is a fundamental requirement for the realisation of all human rights. Hence, there is hope that the right to peace will continue to be promoted, studied and negotiated by relevant actors of the international community.

[1] Charter of the United Nations (adopted 26 June 1945, entered into force 24 October 1945) 1 UNTS 16.

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948 by UN General Assembly resolution 217A (III)) UN Doc A/RES/3/217 A. The preamble of the UDHR draws on the four freedoms referred to by Franklin D Roosevelt in his State of the Union Address in January 1941. Freedom from fear, an early expression of the right to peace, was conceived as entailing ‘a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour – anywhere in the world.’

[3] UDHR (n 2).

[4] UNGA, Declaration on the Preparation of Societies for Life in Peace (15 December 1978) UN Doc A/RES/33/73, para I (1).

[5] UNGA, Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace (12 November 1984) UN Doc A/RES/39/11, preambular para 4.

[6] Two regional human rights instruments explicitly recognise the right to peace: the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (adopted 27 June 1981, entered into force 21 October 1986) 1520 UNTS 217, article 23; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Human Rights Declaration (adopted 18 November 2012) article 38.

[7] Declaration on the Preparation of Societies for Life in Peace (n 4) preambular para 3; Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace (n 5) para 1.

[8] Declaration on the Preparation of Societies for Life in Peace (n 4) I.

[9] Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace (n 5) para 2.

[10] Ibid, para 4.

[11] Declaration on the Preparation of Societies for Life in Peace (n 4) (I) para 6.

[12] Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace (n 5) para 3.

[13] UNGA, Declaration on the Right to Development (4 December 1986) UN Doc A/RES/41/128, preambular para 11.

[14] Ibid, article 7.

[15] ‘The Human Rights to Peace’ Declaration by Federico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO (January 1997) 5.

[16] Ibid, 13.

[17] UNGA, Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace (13 September 1999) UN Doc A/RES/53/243.

[18] UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution 11/4 on the promotion of the right of peoples to peace (17 June 2009) UN Doc A/HRC/RES/11/4.

[19] UNHRC, Report of the Office of the High Commissioner on the outcome of the expert workshop on the right of peoples to peace (17 March 2010) UN Doc A/HRC/14/38, paras 10, 14, 15, 22, 24, 32, 34, 39, 56.

[20] Ibid, paras 22-24.

[21] Ibid, paras 39, 49.

[22] See UNGAOR, 39th session, 57th plenary meeting, agenda item 138 (12 November 1984) UN Doc A/39/PV.37; UNHRC, res 11/4 (n 18); UNHRC, resolution 14/3 on the promotion of the right of peoples to peace (17 June 2010) UN Doc A/HRC/RES/14/3; UNHRC, resolution 20/15 on the promotion of the right to peace (17 July 2012) UN Doc A/HRC/RES/20/15; UNHRC, resolution 32/28 adopted on 1 July 2016, Declaration on the Right to Peace (18 July 2016) UN Doc A/HRC/RES/32/28.

[23] UNHRC res 14/3 (n 22) para 15.

[24] UNHRC, Draft declaration on the right to peace, annex to the Report of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on the right of peoples to peace (16 April 2012) UN Doc A/HRC/20/31.

[25] Ibid, articles 4, 5, 8 and 9.

[26] UNHRC, resolution 20/15 (n 22) para 1.

[27] UNHRC, Report of the Open-ended Inter-Governmental Working Group on the Draft United Nations Declaration on the Right to Peace (26 April 2013) UN Doc A/HRC/WG.13/1/2, paras 21, 23, 40.

[28] Ibid, para 24.

[29] Ibid, paras 25, 43, 47.

[30] Ibid, paras 37, 44.

[31] UNHRC, Report of the open-ended intergovernmental working group on a draft United Nations declaration on the right to peace (8 August 2014) UN Doc A/HRC/27/63, Annex II.

[32] Ibid, Annex II, article 1.

[33] Report of the open-ended intergovernmental working group (n 31) paras 25, 44, 49, 75, 78, 89; UNHRC, Report of the open-ended intergovernmental working group on a draft United Nations declaration on the right to peace on its third session (26 May 2015) UN Doc A/HRC/29/45, paras 29, 30, 73, 74.

[34] UNGA, Declaration on the Right to Peace (2 February 2017) UN Doc A/RES/71/189.

[35] Ibid, article 3.

[36] See e.g. Santiago Declaration on the Human Right to Peace (10 December 2010) articles 3 and 7; Luarca Declaration on the Human Right to Peace (30 October 2006) articles 3 and 11.

[37] UNHRC, Declaration on the Right to Peace (n 22); UNGAOR, 71st session, 52nd meeting, agenda item 68 (12 January 2017) UN Doc A/C.3/71/SR.52, 4-7.

[38] UNGAOR, 52nd meeting (n 37) 5.790562