Santa Clara University


International Law and Human Rights

In the last four centuries, international law has gradually codified the customary diplomatic relations among states on the basis of reciprocity among those states. As such, states, not individuals, have traditionally had standing to pursue claims, and the internal conditions of states were not the subject of international law. This national orientation began to change during the twentieth century, particularly as the world witnessed the horrible tragedies of, for example, the Holocaust and the Killing Fields.

The human rights era of international affairs began on December 10, 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document’s thirty principles became concretized in the later International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Combined with the Tokyo and Nuremberg War Trials and the 1948 Genocide Convention, these documents formed the beginning of the human rights regime, which over time reached even into the domestic politics of states. Religious groups have increasingly emphasized these human rights, and in 1981 the United Nations passed its Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Belief. The Universal Declaration has thus moved from a non-binding recommendation to a recognized part of international law, not just because its principles have been embodied in the above two Covenants, which are binding treaties. Buergenthal, et al. (pp. 41-43) state that this process of legal legitimacy has been analyzed legally from at least three perspectives: the Declaration as the authoritative interpretation of the human rights provisions in the U.N. Charter; its status in customary international law; and “as reflective of a dynamic modern aspect of the general principles of law.” While no member state wishes to be charged with violations of human rights at the present time, Rieff states that the global human rights regime had its peak in the 1990s, but has had trouble finding strategies for the new millennium.

Please also see this site's entry "Human Rights in the Global Political System" in Section One.

An Introductory Short Course:

Macpherson compares civil, political, and socio-economic rights as derivative from eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century revolutions, and associated with emphases present in the then (1960s) Western, Soviet, and Third World political systems. Buergenthal, et al. and Nowak constitute fine comprehensive introductions to the human rights regime. The first is more succinct and lists many relevant legal cases. The second gives a more comprehensive and detailed introduction to the entire human rights regime. The extraordinarily comprehensive University of Minnesota website contains over 25,000 documents (in Arabic, English, French, Japanese, Russian, and French) and links to 4,000 other sites. Martin, et. al., analyze the most important treaties and cases in human rights law. Rieff introduces international political and communication concerns as to the efficacy of the Human Rights NGOs.

Macpherson, Crawford B. The Real World of Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).

Buergenthal, Thomas, Shelton, Dinah, and Stewart, David. International Human Rights, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, Mn.: West Group, 2002).

Nowak, Manfred. Introduction to the International Human Rights Regime (Leiden: Matinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2003).

The comprehensive University of Minnesota website.

Martin, Francisco Forrest, Schnably, Steven J., Wilson, Richard, Simon, Jonathan, and Tushnet, Mark. International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: Treaties, Cases, and Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Rieff, David, New York Times Magazine (August 8, 1999): 37-41. Rieff calls the 1990s the height of the human rights movement and points to current problems.

Other Resource Materials:

Alston, Philip, and Steiner, Henry, eds. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Moral: Text and Materials (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Brownlie, Ian, and Goodwin-Gill, Guy, eds. Basic Documents on Human Rights, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Drinan, Robert F. Can God and Caesar Coexist? Balancing Religious Freedom and International Law. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Hannum, Hurst, ed. Guide to International Human Rights Practice, 4th ed. (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, Lc., 2004).

Ramcharan, Bertrand, “The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law,” occasional paper No. 3 of the Harvard University Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Resolution (Spring 2005). Ramcharan is the former Acting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Symonides, Janusz, ed. Human Rights: New Dimensions and Challenges (Paris: Ashgate, 1998).

Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

Some Transnational Organizations that focus on human rights issues with Internet educational links are:

Recent News Articles

“Annan Cautions Rights Council To Avoid Rifts,” New York Times, June 20, 2006. Secretary General Kofi Annan addresses first meeting of new U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. It replaced the slightly larger Human Rights Commission in a partial reform. Countries like Iran and Venezuela were excluded, but China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba belong. Meeting time has been doubled. The U.S. was one of four countries that voted against the change as not enough reform.

November 6, 2009.