International Human Rights


International Human Rights

Human rights have been a prevalent part of international relations since antiquity. There is a great history of human rights. In fact, throughout the centuries, citizens have advocated for certain rights because they are human. Such arguments have come from both secular and religious arguments, and throughout the different traditions. Yet despite the support for rights, numerous violations have existed throughout the course of human existence. And, when looking at the world today, we find human rights issues in every country and context. As Claude & Weston explain, “On any given day, we are likely to be confronted by one or more news stories about individual heroics on behalf of human rights–at home and in every other reach of the world: Americans demanding better conditions for the homeless, adequate health insurance for all, etc…” (3). Elsewhere, others continue to call for the guarantee of their rights, whether it is with regards to free speech, the right to have open and fair elections (Claude & Weston, 3), the right to practice their religion freely, among many other similar demands. 

The list goes on and on. Sadly, there seem to be countless human rights violations that occur on a daily basis, or, as Claude & Weston say, “Even if human rights are on people’s minds all over the world, however, the full realization of human rights worldwide is a distant dream” (3). 

However, this is not to say that there does not exist a political, legal, and other related mechanisms in place in order to attempt to fulfill these notions of international human rights. As we shall see, particularly within the past century, there has been a fast blossoming of domestic and international human rights institutions whose primarily objective is to guarantee the rights of all individuals. In this article, we will outline some of the international human rights institutions, their specific calls for human rights, as well as the challenges that these entities, organizations, courts, or other mechanisms then pose to other historical international relations concepts such as state sovereignty. 

International Human Rights International Law

In the past century, the international community has attempted to codify a set of rights throughout international organizations. From the League of Nations to the formation of the United Nations following the events of the Second World War, the international community has passed many declarations, covenants, resolutions, and treaties, calling for the ending of rights abuses. This is what is referred to as the international human rights law movement. One of the most recent institutions for the protection of human rights has been the United Nations, where in 1948, 48 countries passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the decades after the UDHR, other important law has been passed. Documents such as the International Covenant of Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, along with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights came into existence in 1966. Together, these three documents make up the “International Bill of Human Rights.”

Despite the growth of the United Nations and the direct and expansive role it has in terms of international human rights law, the organization has been followed by subsequent other international and regional human rights entities such as the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights. Here, citizens within the jurisdiction can take cases to the courts to be heard.

But along with working through international law, activists have also continued to operate in civil society, working at the grassroots, as well as the national level, to help put pressure on states to not only protect human beings, but to provide them with the rights that they are entitled to. Whether the violation is against civil and political rights, social, economic and cultural, or group rights, citizens have been at the forefront of working toward human rights. They have done this through education, through protests, and through pressure on the state. Now, with the introduction and expansion of the internet, as well as other new technology, individuals are able to coordinate efforts with other activists locally and internationally at a much quicker rate.

Yet despite the various advancements of human rights protections (whether through local or international law, or through other tangible), numerous human rights violations continue to exist throughout the world. Whether one speaks of poverty, authoritarianism, sexual abuse, or crimes against humanity, humans everywhere are suffering. For example, millions of children throughout the world do not have access to basic primary education. This may be due to a lack of affordability, school fees for books and uniforms, or the need for the child to stay home and help the family earn an income. Others around the world are dying from preventable diseases. Elsewhere, individuals are often silenced because of their political positions; tortures and political disappearances are unfortunately an all too common occurrences. In other cases around the world, people are suffering because of race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs. Further still, many families are torn apart because of war.

When one is speaking of rights abuses, it must be remembered that many different actors perpetrate such actions. In many cases, fellow citizens carry out human rights abuses against them. And in many other instances, the state—the entity that is supposed to protect them—is the one that is behind the violations. Human rights abuses take place in every country. And in all states, activists are working to change norms, to alter policies, and to provide protections for those who are victims.

This set of texts is an introduction to the study of human rights in international relations. These works are an excellent starting point for understanding the human rights system. Many of the works below go through the history of human rights, as well as examining the different types of rights and rights abuses in international politics.

But along with these texts, additional—more specific works on a number of sub-topics within human rights—will continue to be added. These books and articles will offer a more detailed discussion of a particular topic in human rights.

Human Rights and State Sovereignty

While the idea of international human rights is surely a very important one that looks to provide the necessary and much needed protections and freedoms to all human beings in the world, advocating such rights has not been without criticism from states who question whether these rights norms will be at the cost of their own independence as state leaders. One of the most continued criticisms posed by world leaders with regards to international human rights is not necessarily the challenge of rights themselves (although this is often the case as well), but rather, they speak out against what they believe is a human rights regime that interferes or directly threatens their right to state sovereignty. Since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the state has been recognized as a singular, sovereign actor, and one that must have its borders (and domestic decision making) protected, without outside interference.

The Treaty of Westphalia developed out of “a century fraught with war, including one of the most destructive civil and international wars in the annals of human history: the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This calamity led princes and potentates to decide that the cycle of violence had to be broken; the territorial integrity of kingdoms had to be insulated from interference from without” (Claude & Weston, 6). This clearly benefited the respective leaders, and often at the expense of those within their territories, since, while it helped reduce religious conflict, “it was also an arrangement that suited well the interests of European monarchs who sought to expand their power often at the expense–indeed the abuse–of their subjects” (Claude & Weston, 6).

Thus, from this agreement in the mid-1600s, we find the current state of international relations; the leader of her/his country has the ability to make decisions within their borders, without other countries meddling or intervening, thus attempting to themselves dictate the course of action, or the direction of said state.

Well, the international human rights regime directly challenges the very notion of state sovereignty. From the onset of the human rights movement, the idea has not only been to promote and advocate for international human rights, but also to directly confront those responsible for human rights abuses. And in many cases, the main culprit behind such injustices has been the state itself. Thus, by advocating for human rights, what people are often doing is directly challenging the power, as well as the sovereignty of the state (who again, is in many case the violator of said rights).

International human rights, through the building of a complex set of institutions and mechanisms, is going squarely against these very notions of state sovereignty. Through international organizations such as the United Nations, and within that, with the establishment of covenants and treaties (which are legally binding), the state, in signing and ratifying such documents, has now given up some of its sovereignty to this international human rights mechanism.

However, states continue to challenge the idea that this is even just. For example, “During the 1970s and 1980s, South African diplomats from Pretoria protested when the case of Nelson Mandela…was publicized at the United Nations. They pointed to Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, which says that the United Nations may not intervene “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”” (Claude & Weston, 5). This is far from the only case in which leaders point to the idea of state sovereignty as a fundamental right for their countries. Leaders time and time again make the argument that the international community has no right to dictate what goes on within the borders of their own country.

And thus, here is one of the greatest tensions when speaking about international human rights. Because, for human rights activists, this is precisely what they feel needs to happen when the state is not adhering to international human rights norms.

Human Rights Interventions

This debate is played out on a series of issues, but arguably, none greater than when discussing the issue of outside intervention within a country.

Given the repeated war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke to the UN and the world about the importance and “responsibility to protect” those that are suffering such human rights abuses. In his comments, he outlined justifications for military intervention in a country when that country is not doing what they can to protect the lives of citizens.

From this, it has become clear that the international community should not sit idly while human rights atrocities are taking place. However, we should be careful to suggest that because international organizations such as the United Nations (as well as individual states) have the ability to intervene, that they are always going to. While there are cases of intervention on behalf of human rights (Kosovo, for example), there are also many cases (both historically and more currently) to point to showing that crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against peace have went–and continue to go–unchallenged by outside actors (The Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia (until much later), Darfur, etc…).

Universalism vs Cultural Relativism

One of the other key debates within the discussion of international human rights is the issue of whether human rights as stated and understood are universal in nature, or whether they are culturally relative to different ethnicities, religions, etc…

Universalism is the idea that all human beings, throughout time, culture, religion, race, ethnicity, etc… are entitled to the same set of rights.

Cultural Relativism is the notion that human rights are bound by issues of time, place, culture, religion, etc…, that societies themselves define what is a human right within their specific culture or tradition.

For the cultural relativists, they are often concerned that the international human rights framework is based from a Western perspective and/or bias, and that the rights that are pushed are not truly “universal,” but rather, are the rights deemed important by those in power.

A concern with cultural relativism, however, is that this sort of thinking opens up the possibility that an individuals can always make the argument of “cultural relativism” to either ignore calls for human rights, or to justify their oppression of those ideas (Claude & Weston).

Thus, many scholars have been working to find places of consensus and commonality (in Claude & Weston), where different cultures and traditions all agree on similar human rights issues.

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