Introduction

The primary aim of this blog is to assist students, lawyers, human rights defenders and anyone else interested in the subject to effectively research international human rights standards and keep informed of legal developments.  To that end, this section explains the resources available on this blog and provides a brief introduction of international human rights law.

  • the Research Aids section provides an overview of and links to a wide variety of online resources useful for finding caselaw (including searchable databases of international jurisprudence), looking up treaties, researching human rights conditions, and accessing journal articles
  • the section on Regional Human Rights Tribunals and Rapporteurs identifies and explains the three regional  judicial systems for the protection of human rights (in the Americas, Europe and Africa).  These human rights courts and commissions are the principal mechanisms for establishing State responsibility for human rights violations and obtaining reparations for victims, in the absence of a universal human rights court.
  • the section on Universal Tribunals, Treaty Bodies and Rapporteurs identifies and explains the judicial and quasi-judicial bodies set up under the auspices of the United Nations.  These entities include the International Court of Justice, which does not have a specific human rights mandate, but may decide inter-State disputes related to human rights; the bodies established to oversee compliance with specific U.N. human rights treaties (and in some cases receive individual complaints against States); and, the U.N. special procedures which track the human rights practices of States relevant to particular thematic areas or countries.
  • the page on International Criminal Law explains this related, but distinct, area of international law, which is aimed at establishing individual criminal liability for particularly grave and/or widespread human rights violations.  Relevant bodies include the International Criminal Court and international and internationalized criminal tribunals.
  • the section on Cases before National Courts pertains to the relationship between international human rights law (and international criminal law) and the domestic courts, providing some examples of prominent cases handled by national courts, both civil and criminal in nature (including the exercise of universal jurisdiction), and a list of truth and reconciliation commissions.

INTRODUCTION TO INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW

Classically, “human rights” protect individuals from government action which would threaten or harm certain freedoms thought to be fundamental, such as life, physical integrity, and liberty.  The human rights framework is, essentially, a set of rules governing State behavior vis-a-vis individuals and, at its most basic, prohibits States from depriving people of fundamental freedoms.  Like national constitutions, which are covenants between governments and their citizens, international human rights treaties are covenants between States and the international community, whereby States agree to guarantee certain rights within their own territories.

The driving idea behind  international human rights law is that–because it is States who are in a position to violate individuals’ freedoms–respect for those freedoms may be hard to come by without international consensus and oversight.  That is, a State which does not guarantee basic freedoms to its citizens is unlikely to punish or correct its own behavior, particularly in the absence of international consensus as to the substance of those freedoms and a binding commitment to the international community to respect them.

Thus, following World War II, the international community began developing and codifying the substance of “human rights” and establishing mechanisms for achieving State compliance.  See the sections on international human rights instruments and regional and universal tribunals.  The principal intergovernmental organizations behind the development of international human rights law are the United Nations (and specifically, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Council, and various treaty bodies and special rapporteurs); the Organization of American States (and specifically, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights); the Council of Europe (and specifically, the European Court of Human Rights).  More recently, the African Union has also become a significant actor, through the creation of the African Commission and African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Over time, the duties incumbent on States have come to include positive as well as negative obligations.  This means that, in limited circumstances, States may have a duty to take proactive steps to protect individuals’ rights (rather than merely refraining from directly violating those rights), including from non-State action.  In addition, demand for protections beyond the traditional civil and political sphere have increased the number and variety of interests which are now considered rights, particularly in the area of economic, social and cultural concerns.

While international human rights law refers most specifically to the provisions of international human rights treaties, a variety of other sources are also relevant to the determination of States’ obligations and the definition of specific rights.  These include the judicial and quasi-judicial decisions of international and domestic courts on international human rights law or its domestic equivalents; the decisions of domestic and international courts on the related (but distinct) subject of international criminal law;  and analysis and commentary by scholars and others.  Of course, a necessary component of human rights protection is the factual research identifying the conditions which may constitute violations, which is conducted by intergovernmental organizations as well as NGOs.

International human rights law is dynamic and its boundaries are daily being pushed in new directions, which is where the regular posts to this blog come in, in an effort to keep up with developments in the law, its interpretation, and the peoples’ lives it may affect.

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