International Human Rights Law

Origins of Modern International Human Rights Law.

International human rights law lays down obligations which States are bound to respect. By becoming parties to international treaties, States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights. The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.

The idea of recognized and shared cultural norms has existed throughout history, but the birth of the modern field of international human rights law can be traced to the end of the Second World War. During World War II, Nazi Germany attempted to systematically exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, and targeted other groups such as the disabled, Gypsies, communists, and homosexuals. Historians estimate that approximately 11 million people were killed.

Human rights are the sum of individual and collective rights laid down in State constitutions and international law.

When the Second World War ended in 1945 news of the genocide (the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation) spread throughout the world. People were horrified by the images and news of the atrocities. The idea emerged that a proclamation of certain basic standards of respect for human rights would prevent a return to the aggression and atrocities committed during the war. 4 Western countries, particularly the United States, played a large role in writing the covenants, treaties, and agreements. Western countries also played a key role in establishing international bodies such as the United Nations (UN). World War II was not the last time that there was genocide, but it was a turning point because it resulting in the founding of the United Nations. The Charter that established the United Nations created the modern international human rights framework.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a legally binding covenant adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966. Along with the ICESCR, the ICCPR reflects many of the same principles stated in the Declaration of Human Rights, but with binding force. In other words, states are not only encouraged to follow its principles; they are legally obligated to protect the rights in this covenant. The ICCPR commits parties to the treaty to respect individuals’ civil and political rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, electoral rights, and the right to a fair trial. As of January 2015, the Covenant has 74 signatories and 168 parties.

International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is the second major international treaty, along with the ICCPR, that underlies much of today’s human rights law. It is also a multilateral treaty. Like the ICCPR, the ICESCR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966 and has been in force from 1976. The ICESCR commits parties to the treaty to the granting of economic, social, and cultural rights, including labor rights, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living. As of January 2015, the Covenant has 70 signatories and 163 parties. Six countries, including the United States, have signed but not yet ratified the Covenant.