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Lecturrete Topic 109 - International Human Rights Law


International human rights law (IHRL) is the body of international law designed to promote human rights on social, regional, and domestic levels. As a form of international law, international human rights law are primarily made up of treaties, agreements between sovereign states intended to have binding legal effect between the parties that have agreed to them; and customary international law. Other international human rights instruments, while not legally binding, contribute to the implementation, understanding and development of international human rights law and have been recognized as a source of political obligation.

The relationship between international human rights law and international humanitarian law is disputed among international law scholars. This discussion forms part of a larger discussion on fragmentation of international law. While pluralist scholars conceive international human rights law as being distinct from international humanitarian law, proponents of the constitutionalist approach regard the latter as a subset of the former. In a nutshell, those who favor separate, self-contained regimes emphasize the differences in applicability; international humanitarian law applies only during armed conflict.

A more systemic perspective explains that international humanitarian law represents a function of international human rights law; it includes general norms that apply to everyone at all time as well as specialized norms which apply to certain situations such as armed conflict between both state and military occupation (i.e. IHL) or to certain groups of people including refugees (e.g. the 1951 Refugee Convention), children (the Convention on the Rights of the Child), and prisoners of war (the 1949 Third Geneva Convention).

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1993, in terms of which the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was established in 2006, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was replaced with the United Nations Human Rights Council for the enforcement of international human rights law. The changes prophesied a more structured organization along with a requirement to review human rights cases every 4 years. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 10 also targets the promotion of legislation and policies towards reducing inequality.

International Bill of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a UN General Assembly declaration that does not in form create binding international human rights law. Many legal scholars cite the UDHR as evidence of customary international law.

More broadly, the UDHR has become an authoritative human rights reference. It has provided the basis for subsequent international human rights instruments that form non-binding, but ultimately authoritative international human rights law.

International Human Rights Treaties

Besides the adoption in 1966 of the two wide-ranging Covenants that form part of the International Bill of Human Rights (namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), other treaties have been adopted at the international level. These are generally known as human rights instruments. Some of the most significant include the following:

  •  the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPCG) (adopted 1948 and entered into force in 1951)

  • the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CSR) (adopted in 1951 and entered into force in 1954)

  • the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) (adopted in 1965 and entered into force in 1969)

  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (entered into force in 1981)

  • the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) (adopted in 1984 and entered into force in 1987)

  • the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (adopted in 1989 and entered into force in 1990)

  • the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) (adopted in 1990 and entered into force in 2003)

  • the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (entered into force on 3 May 2008)

  • the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) (adopted in 2006 and entered into force in 2010).

Human Rights Council 

The Human Rights Council is composed of 47 elected United Nations Member States, empowered to prevent abuses, inequity and discrimination, protect the most vulnerable, and expose the perpetrators of human rights violations. The Council established Special Procedures (or mechanisms) to address either specific country situations or thematic issues across the globe. Special Procedures are either an individual –a special rapporteur or representative, or independent expert—or a working group. They are prominent, independent experts working on a voluntary basis and are appointed by the Human Rights Council. There are currently 30 thematic mandates and eight country mandates. All report to the Human Rights Council on their findings and recommendations.

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