International Human Rights Law

“Human rights” refers to rights and values that are universal and inalienable and that people possess simply by virtue of being human. “International human rights law” gives legal expression to the concept of human rights. International human rights law lays out a series of rights that are legally endowed upon individuals vis-à-vis the state. States are obliged to respect and protect these rights and to ensure that they are realized.

The sources of international human rights law are treaties and conventions or guidelines, principles, rules, and standards. Treaties and conventions are like multilateral contracts in that they are signed by many parties (in this case, many states). States sign and ratify (the technical term for fully consenting to) treaties and must make sure the rights addressed in the treaties are realized domestically because treaty obligations are legally binding. Some treaties address the general human rights of all persons (e.g., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights); some focus on specific rights (e.g. the United Nations Convention against Torture); and others focus on specific groups (e.g., the UN Convention on the Rights of Children). Treaties and conventions are often considered “hard law” because they are legally binding. Treaties are created at both the international level and the regional level.

Internationally agreed guidelines, principles, rules, or standards (e.g. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners) are considered “soft law.” These standards, although officially negotiated by states, are not officially ratified in the way that treaties are. There are both international and regional guidelines, principles, rules, and standards. Although they are not legally binding, they provide excellent guidance on human rights law.

Treaties and guidelines, principles, rules, and standards provide the legal framework for human rights. Some of the rights articulated are general in nature, and it may not be readily apparent how they can be implemented in practice. In these cases, it can be useful to turn to case law or other authoritative statements on particular rights. Each treaty generally includes a provision establishing a treaty-monitoring body (e.g., the Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes the Committee on the Rights of the Child). In some cases (such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which establishes the Human Rights Committee), an individual can take a case against his or her state for breach of human rights. This kind of a situation generates the case law that is a useful interpretative source of international human rights law.

States are required to report to treaty-monitoring bodies about their compliance with the treaty. The reports and responses of the various committees provide useful information on what the rights mean and how they should be applied in practice. These reports are also helpful in gaining information on the human rights situation of a particular developing or postconflict country. Often, treaty-monitoring bodies produce “general comments” on specific rights that can be a valuable source for the rule of law practitioner.