An Introduction to Human Rights
August 9, 2023
In the U.S., people often talk about human rights, but not as many people actually know what they are. The following article offers a brief introduction to international human rights law.
The modern human rights paradigm is often said to begin with the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Driven in large part by the mass deaths from World War II and especially by the Holocaust, the UDHR marked “the first time in human history” that an international document articulated the “basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights” that all human beings possess (OHCHR).
In 1966, the UN General Assembly (GA) adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The two International Covenants, alongside the UDHR, form what is known as the International Bill of Human Rights.
Alongside the UDHR and the two Covenants, there are seven other core human rights treaties:
International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination
Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Convention for the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is also crucial. It was one of the earliest treaties, entering into force in 1951. As is clear in the names of these conventions, the premier right in human rights law is not freedom of speech but rather, freedom from discrimination.
International human rights law represents a radical break in traditional statecraft. Since the 17th century in Europe, Westphalian sovereignty—the idea that each state exerts complete control over its own territory—had reigned supreme. However, the creation of the League of Nations after WWI, followed by the United Nations after WWII, weakened that idea. Especially in the wake of the Holocaust, it was no longer justifiable to let a state exert absolute and unchecked power over its people.
Instead, the philosophical underpinning of international human rights law draws from both Enlightenment thinking and Utilitarianism. The former philosophical movement argued for the existence of intrinsic, unalienable rights (said to be bestowed by God) that belong to every person—though in reality, the purview of these rights was then limited to white men. Utilitarianism is also based on the assumption that every person is equal to every other person; an action is good or justifiable when it does the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. In this context, forgoing absolute Westphalian sovereignty was deemed necessary for the greater good of all humankind.