In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Rights

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Periodicals
  • Human Rights Reports
  • Histories
  • Philosophical Foundations
  • Sources
  • Universality and Cultural Relativism
  • Equality and Nondiscrimination
  • Development
  • The United Nations System of Human Rights Protection
  • Domestic Enforcement
  • Extraterritorial Application of Human Rights
  • Nonstate Actors
  • The Responsibility to Protect

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International Law Human Rights
Jessica Almqvist
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0056


The adoption in 1945 of the UN Charter and in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marks the initial stages in the development of the current international human rights regime. The UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, respectively, both endorsed in 1966, represent a milestone in establishing the international legal foundations for this regime. Together with the Universal Declaration, the two covenants constitute the International Bill of Rights. Since the time of their endorsement, the body of international human rights law has expanded dramatically both at international and regional levels. Much energy has been expended to achieve equality and to fight against discrimination. In this process, different groups have been singled out as especially vulnerable: women, children, and minorities, including indigenous peoples. The notion of human rights has been criticized as a Western construct with little or no relevance elsewhere. However, with time, this challenge has come to be understood not as requiring the abandoning of universality but as calling for cultural sensitivity and dialogue. The human right to development is still controversial, and its proclamation has been seen as requiring the advancement of a rights-based approach to development. At the same time, the idea of three generations of rights is generally rejected and the indivisibility of all human rights reinforced. A lack of respect for international human rights obligations is a serious problem, prompting the establishment of international procedures in the UN context and regional human rights systems, including human rights courts in Africa, America, and Europe. In recent years, more attention is paid to domestic enforcement, including the extraterritorial application of human rights. Also of interest are the human rights obligations of nonstate actors. Serious human rights violations are an important characteristic of contemporary conflicts, urging a focus on the international criminal responsibility of their perpetrators and on applicable law, as well as on remedies and reparations in transitional contexts. Likewise, it has prompted the more polemical question of whether the international community has a responsibility to protect populations whose governments are unable to do so themselves, including through humanitarian interventions and transitional administrations. Despite the relative success of the international human rights regime since the 1950s, its future is uncertain. Its stability and further improvement will depend on its ability to tackle contemporary challenges, such as the “War on Terror,” world poverty, environmental degradation, and climate change.

General Overviews

General overviews in the field encourage scholars and students to deepen their understanding of the meaning and significance of international human rights law in a broader legal, political, and social context. The relationship between this body of law and international politics attracts considerable attention. The purpose is not merely to explain how international human rights has come to influence global politics and vice versa (Donnelly 2006 and Vincent 2009) but also how other disciplines, notably political theory, can improve our understanding of human rights as a common language of social criticism in global politics (Beitz 2009). In a similar vein, Forsythe 2006 suggests we make use of contributions from international relations when studying decision-making processes in the area of human rights. And Vincent 2010 insists on the need to emphasize the political basis for all human rights law. Freeman 2011 goes further in this regard by arguing that a multidisciplinary approach is essential when approaching human rights law and especially when assessing experiences of victims of human rights violations. Also of importance are contributions that explore the multiple intersections and complex relationships between international human rights law and general international law, including the laws of war, treaty law, state responsibility, and immunities (Meron 2006 and Kamminga and Scheinin 2009). Scholars and students who are interested in the relationship between human rights law and other specialized bodies of laws, notably, international humanitarian law and international criminal law, are advised to consult the section In Conflict and Postconflict Situations for further guidance.

  • Beitz, Charles R. The Idea of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Understands human rights as the common language of social criticism in global political life. Presents a model of human rights as matters of international concern whose violation by governments can justify international action ranging from intervention to assistance.

  • Donnelly, Jack. International Human Rights. 3d ed. Dilemmas in World Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2006.

    Explains the rise, development, and consolidation of human rights, including dark periods of resistance and setbacks, in the light of changing international political scenarios. Also considers problems of cultural relativism. Includes diverse case studies, suggested readings, discussion questions, and essential human rights documents.

  • Forsythe, David P. Human Rights in International Relations. 2d ed. Themes in International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Advances our understanding of human rights policymaking processes in light of contributions from international relations. A special focus on the UN, regional organizations, state foreign policy, human rights groups, and transnational corporations. Also concerned with the difficulties of reconciling the liberal tradition with the realist paradigm.

  • Freeman, Michael. Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary Approach. 2d ed. Key Concepts. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011.

    Offers a unique interdisciplinary approach. Shows that there is a fundamental tension between the philosophy of human rights and the way in which the notion of human rights is understood in the social sciences. Especially appealing for students who want an introduction to the nonlegal aspects of their subject.

  • Kamminga, Menno T., and Martin Scheinin, eds. The Impact of Human Rights Law on General International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199565221.001.0001

    Considers the formation of customary law, treaty law, immunities, and state responsibility, etc. Analyzes the degree to which human rights concepts are being incorporated by the International Court of Justice and the International Law Commission. A most comprehensive examination of the topic.

  • Meron, Theodor. The Humanization of International Law. Hague Academy of International Law Monographs 3. Leiden, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 2006.

    Examines the claim about the revolutionary effect of human rights and humanitarian law on general international law. Provides a nuanced response by exploring several sectors of international law, including the laws of war, treaty law, and state responsibility.

  • Vincent, Andrew. The Politics of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Provides a systematic introductory overview of the nature and development of human rights. Suggests that an account of human rights should focus primarily on politics, because there are no universally agreed moral or religious standards to uphold them. Human rights exist in the context of social recognition within a political association.

  • Vincent, R. J., ed. Foreign Policy and Human Rights: Issues and Responses. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    A collection of essays that contribute to our understanding of the issue of human rights in international relations and the response to outstanding contemporary concerns as reflected in the foreign policies of states. Collects case material and links concerns to responses.

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