Santa Clara University


Human Rights in the Global Political System

1. Brief Introduction
2. A Short Introductory Course
3. Other Resource Materials
4. Recent Articles

Brief Introduction

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 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 tragedy of the Holocaust within the German nation. Religious adherents and leaders have gradually played a stronger role relating responsibilities, usually strong in religious traditions, and rights; motivating people to embrace specific formulations of these universal rights; and relating their religious-ethical discourse to universal rights. Religious groups face challenges in specifying the rights and in legitimizing them. 

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 reached even into the domestic politics of states. Religious groups have increasingly emphasized these rights, and in 1981 the United Nations passed its Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Belief. Over time, the Universal Declaration has 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 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 (1999) states that the global human rights regime reached its peak in the 1990s, but has had trouble finding new strategies.

While its Human Rights Council remained controversial, the United Nations also focused on the most drastic cases ("Rwanda, never again!") with the concept of "the Responsibility to Protect." (R2P) In 2005 the U.N. World Summit, the largest ever gathering of heads of states and governments, accepted responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The World Summit Outcome Document was adopted by the General Assembly in October, and affirmed by the Security Council in April 2006. In January 2009 Secretary General Ban Ki-moon presented a report "implementing the responsibility to protect," which was discussed by the General Assembly in July 2009. For a summary of that discussion, see the Global Centre report below. 94 speakers representing 180 states and 2 (Vatican, Palestine) observer missions took part.

A Short Introductory 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. Then read the assessment of the U.N. debate on the Responsibility to Protect for the various national positions on the issue. For the relationships between religious organizations and human rights, see the entire Section Five of this site: "Religion, Ethics, and Politics in a Global Ethic."

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).

Farr, Thomas F., and Hoover, Dennis R. The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy: Recommendations for the Obama Administration, joint policy paper published by Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University, and Center on Faith and International Affairs, Institute for Global Engagement. Strengths and weaknesses of the implementation of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), signed into law by President Clinton in 1998. Authors argue for more mainstreaming of these concerns in State Department establishment to foster democratization, public diplomacy, counterrorism policy, and multilateral engagement and international law. Freedom of religion combines human rights concerns with the survival and expansion of religious groups, so it is crucial to religious organizations for both reasons. It has appeared in Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and many other documents.  

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

University of Minnesota comprehensive 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.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect ( Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, The 2009 General Assembly Debate: An Assessment (August 2009)

Other Resource Materials:   The Institute for Global Engagement promotes “sustaninable environments for religious freedom worldwide. It houses the Council on Faith and International Affairs which publishes The Review of Faith and International

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).

Diamond, Larry. The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World (New York: Times Books, 2008). Diamond's somewhat optimistic comparison of the current global situation with 1974. Much World Bank and Freedom House, etc. data. Diamond concludes that it is not the economic stage, but the struggles of ordinary people that make the difference. Dedicated to Gandhi, Havel, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Drinan, Robert F. The Mobilization of Shame: A World View of Human Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

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

Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2002).

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).

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law - website.   The Institute for Global Engagement promotes “sustaninable environments for religious freedom worldwide. It houses the Council on Faith and International Affairs which publishes The Review of Faith and International

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

African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (Banjul) 

Amnesty International (London)

Andean Commission of Jurists (Lima) 

Anti-Slavery International (London) 

Article 19 (London) 

Asia Human Rights Commission (Hong Kong) 

Association for the Prevention of Torture (Geneva) 

Carter Center (Atlanta) 

Human Rights Watch (New York) 

International Commission of Jurists (Geneva) 

International Service for Human Rights (Geneva) 

International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (Copenhagen) 

Minority Rights Group International (London) 

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.

"The Declaration of Human Rights at 60," America (entire issue December 1, 2008).

November 3, 2009.