International Human Rights Law

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Human rights are the basic entitlements that belong to each and every one of us, regardless of our background, where we live, what we look like, what we think or what we believe. Based on the principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect, they have been agreed upon by governments from all around the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights , adopted by the United Nations on 10 December , sets out the basic rights and freedoms that apply to all men, women and children.

It has become the most important document of its kind and although not legally-binding itself, forms the basis of many legally-binding international agreements. These includes two major international agreements: one on civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom from torture, and one on economic,social and cultural rights, such as the right to health and the right to education.

The Foundation of International Human Rights Law

International human rights laws protect people from racial discrimination, from torture and from enforced disappearances. They also recognise the rights of specific groups of people, including women, children, people with disability, indigenous peoples and migrant workers.


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Norms that are widely adopted in state constitutions and in regional documents in addition to international documents may also obtain customary status. Based on this standard, many scholars consider the principles contained in the UDHR to have evolved to customary status based on the universal acceptance of that document in the early twenty-first century. Many of the norms embodied in human rights treaties eventually take on customary legal status. Although most international treaties are designed to create obligations from one state to another, human rights treaties are written in such a manner that their intention is to create norms of behavior for all states in regard to their citizens or to others in their jurisdiction.

Some human rights norms have achieved what is known as peremptory status. When a norm is peremptory, no state may derogate from it not adhere to it under any circumstance. This principle is also known as jus cogens , a Latin phrase meaning "compelling law. Most states would agree that committing any of these acts would qualify as a violation of international human rights law.

Sources of International Law

Traditionally, international law is enforced primarily by the states themselves. When one state violates its international obligations to another state, the victim state pursues any of a number of actions against the offending state. When international human rights law is violated, however, the primary victims are normally individuals residing in the offending states. While other states may make a claim against the offending state, they may not be as compelled to do so as they would be if they were the victim of a legal transgression.

For this reason, international organizations such as the UN have primary responsibility for investigating violations of international human rights law. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights CHR actively investigates human rights abuses in particular countries or categories of abuse across a number of countries. Though it does not have the power to punish states guilty of human rights abuses, the UN and CHR do have the power to bring violations of human rights to the attention of the world.

This unwanted scrutiny is often enough to trigger some changes in policy; moreover, international condemnation may result in economic sanctions , such as those imposed on South Africa in the s. In certain cases, the UN Security Council has established special tribunals to try individuals accused of committing particularly widespread violations of human rights.

International human rights | Equality and Human Rights Commission

Both these tribunals have tried individuals for violations of international humanitarian law and for certain human rights abuses. In addition to initiating investigations by member states and by the CHR, individuals who are the victim of human rights abuses also have the ability to report their situation to the UN through special mechanisms in the CHR. Four of these committees can hear complaints about human rights abuses from individuals.

In addition to efforts at the UN, some national and regional courts are able to adjudicate international human rights abuses. For example, a number of victims of human rights abuses have taken advantage of the United States' Alien Tort Claims Act to sue foreign governments in U. Other courts around the world have allowed for the arrest of prominent individuals implicated in widespread human rights abuses. One of the most famous examples of this was the arrest of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet b. Pinochet was accused of massive violations of rights while president of Chile, including the murder of Spanish citizens.

The arrests did not directly lead to Pinochet's facing trial the United Kingdom returned him to Chile based on health concerns , but his arrest set an important precedent. In January , the Chilean Supreme Court found that Pinochet's failing health was not a sufficient reason for him to avoid standing trial for crimes committed during his presidency. The European Court of Human Rights , one of the most powerful regional courts in the world, has the authority to overturn the laws of states under its jurisdiction that it determines to be in violation of certain human rights.

Despite some disagreement over certain human rights treaties and their implementation, international human rights law has made remarkable progress since World War II.

Debate on human rights law is no longer focused on whether or not it exists, but rather on its specific content and the degree to which it should be enforced. Many of the debates at the UN concerning human rights involve the cultural interpretation of rights.

Regional monitoring and enforcement mechanisms

Reflecting this diversity of opinion, human rights treaties are written only with input from all members of the UN. At the start of the twenty-first century the CHR, in charge of the codification and implementation of human rights standards, represented some fifty-three member states, elected according to regional distribution. The continued codification and implementation of international human rights law depend upon the input of, and agreement among, states around the world.

American Law Institute.

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Gearty, Conner, and Adam Tomkins. The International Bill of Human Rights.

International human rights law

Universal Declaration of Human Rights International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights The core international human rights instruments. Universal human rights instruments. Indicators: essential tools in the realization of human rights. A call to save the human rights treaty body system. Human Rights Council: Stop human rights violations in Syria.


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