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Human Rights: An Overview

International human rights law began as a response to the horrors of war, in particular World War II, although the Geneva Conventions had begun earlier. The formation of the United Nations gave human rights international legitimacy, particularly because many nations signed the United Nations Charter, which specifically mentions human rights (Preamble, Chapter I). Since the formation of the United Nations, it has passed many agreements and resolutions binding the signatories to respect human rights. Additionally, it has set up tribunals to charge those suspected of egregious violations of human rights. Furthermore, several other organizations, created by various treaties, have come into existence. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for example, ensures that signatories of the American Convention on Human Rights abide by that treaty. The European Convention on Human Rights binds members of the Council of Europe to the human rights obligations set forth in it. The Convention specifically mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and charges all signatories with upholding the basic principles of the document. Both the European and American Conventions on human rights have international tribunals in which to bring claims of violations of human rights. Additionally, several African nations have signed the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. Many nations have ratified international human rights instruments put forward by the United Nations. Thus, many human rights instruments, tribunals, and declarations have been created since World War II, some drawing inspiration for early human rights proclamations, such as the Universal Declaration. Human rights continues to be a growing body of international law.

Human rights are "inalienable rights of all members of the human family" (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Thus, human rights are, in principle, applicable to every person, regardless of their nationality. The Universal Declaration gives an example of the substance of human rights agreements (although it is not itself a treaty, many nations have agreed to abide by its principles, and it serves as an inspiration for treaties on human rights). Specifically, the Universal Declaration calls on nations to respect the rights to life, liberty, and security (Article 3). It also states that no person should be enslaved, tortured, or deprived of the right to a trial before a "national tribunal." Thus the Declaration proclaims negative rights, whereby national governments may not engage in certain activities against persons. Positive rights are also part of the Declaration. It states that everyone should enjoy the right to an education and basic standards of living. In doing so, it calls on nations to provide for all of their citizens without discrimination. Human rights, in substance, are protections against abuses by all states, and guarantees that people shall receive benefits from states. (Henkin, L. et al., Human Rights, pg. 6 (1999)).

International human rights law, through treaties, acts upon states. Documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaim the ideals of nations aspiring to respect the human rights of people of all nations. Legally, however, these documents do not bind countries.  Rather, treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provide the international legal framework to protect human rights. Under these treaties, nations agree to abide by certain restrictions on their conduct and to uphold certain freedoms and basic needs for citizens.  The enforcement of human rights treaties naturally requires nations to comply with the terms of their agreements, and various approaches are used to enforce agreements. Specially appointed commissions and other bodies monitor compliance. Additionally, multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe may impose sanctions or other measures against recalcitrant states. International tribunals provide an additional avenue to ensure compliance. Individuals may also be held accountable for human rights violations if they are brought before such a tribunal and convicted. A notable example is the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was set up to charge officers of the Serbian military who had allegedly committed war crimes during the breakup of Yugoslavia. It drew precedent from the Nuremburg Tribunals. The law of human rights is therefore an international body of law of treaties and decisions from international tribunals, although many individual states may have also enacted domestic laws that protect what are traditionally thought of as human rights.

The United States is an example of a country that is both party to international agreements and has enacted its own human rights guarantees. The Constitution of the United States guarantees basic freedoms, such as equal protection under the laws, to all United States citizens (Amendment XIV). Additionally, the United States has passed legislation further protecting the human rights of its citizens. A good example is civil rights legislation (Title 42, Chapter 21 of the U.S. Code). The United States is also bound by treaty obligations. It has ratified the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, is a member of the United Nations, and has signed and/or ratified other human rights agreements. A list of major human rights instruments that the United States has signed or ratified can be found here.

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