Human Rights

Human Rights

In shaping a human rights policy for the twenty-first century, states must carefully craft tactics consistent with their interests and values to protect victims of abuse.

"... I know that we will be the sufferers if we let great wrongs occur without exerting ourselves to correct them."

-Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States

Historical Precursors of Human Rights Regime

A copy of the 1215 Magna Carta reproduced in 1297. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta is an English charter of liberties issued by King John I in 1215 under threat of civil war. Imposed by feudal barons seeking to limit the king‘s power, the charter granted specific liberties and set in place the first limitations on sovereign authority. Specifically, the rights to due process and habeas corpus, among others, originated in the Magna Carta, which states,“No free man shall be…imprisoned or [dispossessed]…except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by law of the land.” The charter is widely recognized by scholars as the foundation of constitutional law and has served as a source of inspiration for numerous future generations against oppression.

An engraving of Italian philosopher and thelogian, Thomas Aquinas, (c1225-1274) completed circa 1754. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Thomas Aquinas clarifies just war theory

Building upon the works of other theorists, including Saint Augustine of Hippo as well as earlier Greek and Roman philosophers, thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas attempted to clarify when war is permissible and how it should be conducted. Among many dictums, Aquinas claims war should only occur after careful deliberation, for the purpose of restoring peace, if it has a reasonable chance of success, and with a keen sense of proportionality in mind. Aquinas‘s seminal work detailing these points, Summa Theologica, has been rigorously analyzed by theologians, philosophers, and statesmen and is widely regarded as one of the essential texts for just war theory.

A portrait of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). The portrait was completed by Jansz van Mierevelt Michiel (1567-1641) in January, 1754. (Imagno/Getty Images)

Grotius publishes treatise on universal natural law

In 1625, the Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius published a groundbreaking treatise, The Law of War and Peace. Having witnessed the bloodshed of the Thirty Years‘ War, Grotius proclaimed, “There is a common law among nations which is valid alike for war and in war…. I observed a lack of restraint in relation to war, such as even barbarous nations should be ashamed of.” This theory of natural law, which should be applied even during times of war, is considered the foundational work of international law.

Print of an army camp during the Thirty Years’ War. The Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 through the Peace of Westphalia. (Bettmann/CORBIS Images)

Peace of Westphalia ends Thirty Years’ War

The first international charter of its kind, the Peace of Westphalia encompassed a series of treaties signed in 1648 that collectively ended the Thirty Years‘ War and the Eighty Years‘ War. In addition to ending these two protracted conflicts, which had engulfed the continent, the treaties had two important normative components. First, Westphalia established the basis of the modern international system by creating sovereign nation-states, which are defined as having supreme political authority within a territory. Second, it ended the practice of intervention over religion and implicitly granted limited religious tolerance. The treaties significantly strengthened the sovereign authority of kings and established a norm of nonintervention that, though not always honored, fostered a significant degree of international order in Europe.

Title page from Hobbes’ ’Leviathan,’ from 1561. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Thomas Hobbes’s 'Leviathan' published

In his most famous work, Leviathan, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes put forth the social contract theory to justify and legitimize sovereign authority. Writing during the English Civil War, Hobbes argued that the people established government through a contract in which they gave up their rights in exchange for peace and security. Hobbes contended that, as a result, the sovereign stood above all temporal authority, accountable only to God. Taking a pessimistic outlook on humanity, Hobbes famously asserted that, without government, human beings would exist in a state of nature that would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” In the late eighteenth century, the Hobbesian political philosophy of the supreme and absolute sovereign was challenged by the emergence of constitutional government and natural law, exemplified in the American and French revolutions.

Engraving of William of Orange (1650-1702) landing at Torbay, Devon, on November 5, 1688, with troops at beginning of the Glorious Revolution, completed in 1754. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

English Bill of Rights

In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, which overthrew King James II of England, Parliament sought to codify the ideals of constitutional law and natural rights on which the revolution had been premised. In 1689, Parliament passed the Bill of Rights, which demanded consent of the people—represented by Parliament—for acts of governance and guaranteed various freedoms and legal protections. Specifically, the act required the consent of Parliament to levy taxes, maintain a standing army in times of peace, hold elections, and suspend laws. The act also granted freedom of speech in Parliament and outlawed “cruel and unusual” punishment. As a result, the Bill of Rights placed extreme limits on the royal prerogative and bestowed on Parliament greater authority to govern the United Kingdom. Scholars place the origins of civil and political rights in the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights.

Portrait of political theorist and philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) author of Two Treatises of Government, completed in 1900. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

John Locke completes 'Two Treatises of Government'

The Two Treatises of Government, written by John Locke to justify the Glorious Revolution, were groundbreaking documents.

The First Treatise of Government refutes the divine right of kings doctrine, which states that a monarch derives his right to rule directly by the will of God, and thus is not subject to temporal authority.

The Second Treatise of Government is widely considered the cornerstone of Western political philosophy. Locke proposed a new theory of government in which sovereignty is vested in the people. According to Locke, human beings originated in a state of nature in which each person is equal and possesses natural rights. To protect themselves and their right to property, human beings entered into a social compact and created a civil society. In this civil society, the people entrust their rights to a government, but if the government abuses its power, the people reserve the right to rebel. For the first time in history, Locke envisioned a humanity inherently endowed with fundamental rights and a government that respected those rights.

Portrait of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu, completed in the 19th century. (Stefano Bianchetti/CORBIS)

Montesquieu publishes 'The Spirit of the Laws'

Already a celebrated figure of the French Enlightenment, in 1748 Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (popularly known simply as Montesquieu), published his literary masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws, in which he advocated for constitutional government and the separation of powers. Namely, Montesquieu argued that, to safeguard political liberty from despotic government, government should be separated into different branches according to function. Originally published anonymously due to censorship in France, the treatise held enormous import for the leaders of both the American and French revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century.

A picture of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence on July, 4 1776, by John Trumbull. Image created sometime between 1786 and 1820. (Francis G. Mayer/CORBIS)

U.S. Declaration of Independence

Adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, after more than a year of war, the U.S. Declaration of Independence officially severed ties between the British Empire, personified by King George III, and the American colonies. Penned by Thomas Jefferson and signed by fifty-six representatives from the thirteen colonies, the document is a formal explanation of why the American colonists declared this independence. The declaration enumerates the specific wrongdoings of King George III and justifies the colonies‘ right to revolution based on certain self-evident and inalienable rights. In a broad statement of human rights, the document declared that people are “endowed by their Creator” with the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Although it would be many years and another war with Britain before Americans would fully realize their independence, the declaration embodied the high ideological and moral standard to which the founding fathers believed that government should endeavor.

A painting showing French troops capturing the Bastille, which represented the Bourbon monarchy, during the French Revolution. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Declaration of the Rights of Man

Heavily influenced by the ideals and political philosophy of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of the Rights of Man is the founding document of the French Revolution. Adopted by the French National Assembly on August 26, 1789, it heralded the creation of a democratic government based in natural law and defined fundamental rights as “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” The declaration codified basic rights for French citizens, but did not address the issue of slavery or the status of women. Although the American Revolution a decade earlier had only modest international impact, the French Revolution sent shockwaves throughout Europe to monarchies that could potentially be threatened by the surge of civil and political rights—shockwaves exacerbated as France sought to export its ideals by military force.

A picture of American general George Washington (1732-1799) presiding over the Constitutional Convention May 25-September 17, 1787. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

U.S. Bill of Rights adopted

During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution at the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787, many delegates were concerned that the strong federal government as outlined would threaten individual rights. As a result, James Madison drafted a number of amendments that specifically enumerate the civil and political rights of American citizens. Despite a controversial and drawn-out ratification process, the Bill of Rights entered into force on December 15, 1791. The original ten amendments included freedom of speech, the right to assemble, the right to bear arms, and the right to a fair trial, among others. Originally, these rights only applied to property-holding white men, notably excluding landless white men, African Americans, and women. Amendments were later passed to reflect normative developments such as the abolition of slavery and women‘s suffrage. Today, many countries‘ constitutions include rights resembling those appearing in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

A picture of English Author, Mary Wollstonecraft, who published "Vindication on the Rights of Woman," created in the late 18th or 19th century. (CORBIS)

Mary Wollstonecraft publishes 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman'

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is widely considered to be the first great feminist treatise. Writing in the aftermath of the American and French revolutions, Wollestonecraft contends that natural and “inalienable” rights apply to both men and women, and for one to deny rights to the other is a sin. The crux of her argument is that women are not naturally inferior to men; rather, women are not provided the educational opportunities to contribute to society and be good wives, mothers, and citizens.

A portrait of Henri Gregoire (1750-1831), created in ca. 1819. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Henri Gregoire proposes a code

Henri Gregoire, bishop of Blois, was an ardent French revolutionary leader, abolitionist, and advocate for universal suffrage. At a meeting of the French National Convention—the assembly that governed France during the French Revolution—Gregoire introduced a declaration of general rights and principles that, if adopted, would create an “immutable code of law.” Gregoire described his code as the “private interest of one nation … subordinated to the general interest of the human family.” Although the declaration was defeated by the National Convention in 1793, Gregoire‘s conception of a universal code of law prescribing principles of human rights would gain traction after the atrocities of World War II.

Age of State Sovereignty

European statesmen at the Congress of Vienna, where the territorial divisions of Europe were decided after the Napoleonic wars. Created on January 1, 1815. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Congress of Vienna

After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814, the Congress of Vienna convened to reestablish the balance of power on the European continent. While drafting the terms of the peace, states demonstrated a level of concern for human rights for the first time in modern history. Their negotiations included the discussion of civil and political rights, freedom of religion, and—most important—the slave trade. Responding to mounting international pressure, the Final Act of Vienna officially condemned the slave trade as “repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality.” Although ultimately unsuccessful in preventing war between European countries, the Congress of Vienna served as a model for future international institutions, such as the League of Nations and the United Nations.

Illustration of slaves on Board a slave ship completed in the 19th century. (Stefano Bianchetti/CORBIS)

Great Britain passes Abolition Act

The long fight to abolish slavery was the first international campaign grounded in the ideals of basic human rights. As the British Empire expanded its reach, the demand for slaves increased and the slave trade flourished, reaping great financial rewards for individuals, corporations, and Britain. However, the mounting evidence of appalling conditions and brutal treatment of slaves supported a growing and prominent movement of British abolitionists. In 1807, Parliament abolished the slave trade, but the practice of slavery continued to thrive. In 1833, therefore, Parliament passed the Abolition Act, officially outlawing slavery throughout the empire and its colonies. Although it would be another thirty years until the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, the Abolition Act marked the beginning of the decline of slavery.

Susan B. Anthony (left) reads a book with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Photographed in ca. 1890. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Seneca Falls Convention

In July 1848, activists gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss the role of women in American society. Led by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the convention produced the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which would become the founding document of the suffrage movement in the United States. Inspired by the arguments of contemporaneous abolitionists regarding inalienable and natural rights, the declaration demanded equal rights for men and women, specifically the right to vote, make contracts, and own property. Although the declaration was extremely controversial at the time because of its direct defiance of existing cultural norms, it sparked a movement that eventually led to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote.

A copy of Frank Leslie’s newspaper has a front page story on the Supreme Court Dred Scott Decision of 1857. Created ca. 1857. (CORBIS)

Dred Scott decision

In the infamous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, Dred Scott, a slave who had lived in the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin before his master moved to the slave state of Missouri, appealed to the Supreme Court to grant his freedom. In 1857, led by Chief Justice Robert B. Taney, the Supreme Court ruled that slaves were not considered citizens and thus had no right to sue. Further, the court declared that slaves were considered property under the law, not human beings. Because the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to property, Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in territories or states. The infamous decision invalidated long-standing federal legislation that limited the territorial expansion of slavery, helping to lead the country down the path to civil war.

Lithograph of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation completed by G.A. Russell. (CORBIS)

Toward the abolition of slavery

On January 1, 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which officially granted freedom to slaves in the Confederate States of America. Although slavery did not end immediately, the proclamation was a transformative moment in the long battle against the institution. In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States altogether.

Since 1808, a year after Britain became the first major empire to outlaw the purchase and transport of slaves, the import and export of slaves had been prohibited in the United States. The Netherlands, France, Britain, and Portugal all banned the slave trade in 1819, but the use of slave labor remained legal in each of these empires for several decades. In 1848, slavery was abolished in all French colonies. The Netherlands followed suit in 1863. Portugal abolished slavery in Africa in 1869, but Brazil, which had already won its independence from Portugal, allowed slavery to continue until 1888.

An American Red Cross nurse gives water to a wounded soldier whose head and eyes are bangaged as another man looks on. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

International Committee of the Red Cross established

Until the mid-nineteenth century, no institutions to protect the sick and wounded in armed combat existed. In 1863, a committee spearheaded by Henry Dunant, author of Un Souvenir de Solferino [A Memory of Solferino], called for an international conference to address the protection of wartime casualties. In 1864, an international conference with representatives from sixteen countries formulated the Geneva Convention, which called for the protection of wartime sick and wounded and included provisions that guaranteed neutrality for medical personnel, and officially adopted a red cross on a sheet of white as the symbol.

Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross operates in eighty countries. The committee is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movements, and—having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917, 1944, and 1963—one of the most internationally recognized humanitarian organizations.

Portrait of two mannacled men, members of a chain gang enslaved under King Leopold II’s regime in the Congo, created in 1904. (Empire/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Brussels Conference Act of 1890

In 1889, a conference was convened in Brussels, Belgium, with the intention of stopping the slave trade in Africa, the Ottoman Empire, along the East African coast, and the Indian Ocean, among other areas. Agreed to in 1890, the final act of the conference called for the suppression of the maritime and land based slave trade, particular within the Congo. Forced labor, however, continued in the Congo, under the personal rule of Belgium‘s King Leopold and even after the territory was returned to full control of the Belgian state. Despite the adoption of the League of Nations Anti-Slavery Convention in 1926, the practice of various forms of slavery, such as forced labor, would persist in the colonial areas of Africa until the 1940s.

A picture of the New Zealand flag flying at the Auckland International Airport in 1995. (Paul A. Souders/CORBIS)

New Zealand grants women the right to vote

On September 13, 1893, New Zealand‘s Lord Glasgow signed a bill making the country the first in the world to give all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Female enfranchisement was granted after years of petitioning by female advocates, including most notably, Kate Sheppard. Since this act, women have held numerous high-level positions in New Zealand, including prime minister, governor general, and speaker of the House of Representatives. The United States would not grant women the vote until 1920.

Delegates from twenty-six countries meet during the first peace conference at The Hague. Photographed in 1899. (Corbis)

Hague Conventions

The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 comprised a series of international treaties aimed at preserving international security and establishing rules for warfare. Together with the Geneva Conventions, the treaties were the first codified laws of war in the international community.

The first conference, convened in 1899 by Czar Nicholas II of Russia, failed in its primary objective, a mutually agreed-upon limitation of armaments, though it did adopt conventions on the conditions of belligerent action and other codes of conduct for land and sea warfare.

The conference of 1907, originally proposed by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, was unsuccessful in both of its main objectives: limiting disarmaments and establishing a world court. However, participants agreed to meet at regular intervals, creating a precedent for international conferences to settle interstate disputes. A proposed third conference was never held due to the outbreak of World War I.

Costa Rica main street in 1907. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

Central American Peace Conference permits aliens to appeal to international court

Seeking to minimize interstate rivalries and increase regional cooperation, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua created the Central American Court of Justice during the Central American Peace Conference, held in 1907 in Washington, DC. The court lasted ten years and included one judge from each of the five Central American states that had attended the peace conference. Although the court was generally regarded as ineffectual, it was groundbreaking as one of the first international judicial entities to permit both states and nationals to bring cases before it for consideration.

Greek and Armenian orphans wait to board ships to Greece. During World War I, the Ottomans alledgely sought to eliminate the Greek and Armenian populations in Turkey.

Massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Empire

From 1915 to 1916, Ottoman Turks deported hundreds of thousands—and perhaps more than a million—Armenians from Eastern Anatolia to Syria's desert. Many Armenians died from starvation during the deportation or were killed by Ottoman authorities facilitating the removal. Today, disputes remain whether the incident should be considered an act of genocide. Some countries, such as Argentina, Belgium, and France, officially recognize the event as such, but others, including the United Kingdom, Israel, and the United States, do not. Although Turkey acknowledges an event causing mass casualties of Armenians occurred during that period, it argues that the deaths were not premeditated and that the Armenians were living within the chaos of a war zone.

Members of Women's League for Peace and Freedom hold an open air mass meeting in Washington, DC, after presenting resolutions to the President's secretary.

Women's International League for Peace and Freedom founded

Thirteen hundred women from countries embroiled in World War I convened in April 1915 to form the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The delegates passed a variety of resolutions calling for an end to hostilities as well as for postwar disarmament measures and gender equality. WILPF calls itself the oldest women's peace organization and currently has chapters in thirty-five countries. Its primary objective is "to bring together women of different political beliefs and philosophies who are united in their determination to study, make known, and help abolish the causes and the legitimization of war."

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson reads the terms of the German Armistice to Congress in a joint session, and announces the end of World War I on November 11, 1918. (AP Photo)

Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech

On January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to justify the U.S. entry into World War I and to outline proposals that would ensure world peace in the future. In contrast to the dominant belief that self-interest should guide states‘ actions, Wilson believed that morality should form the basis of foreign policy. For example, he argued for self-determination, free trade, open agreements, and democracy. Perhaps most significantly, Wilson‘s fourteenth and final point called for a “general association of nations” to safeguard a system of collective security, which would eventually lead to the establishment of the League of Nations.

French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, and British prime Minister Lloyd George after signing the treaty of Versailles after World War I, in June 1919.

International Labor Organization established

The International Labor Organization (ILO) was established from the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I. Believing social justice was critical to creating a lasting peace following the disastrous war, delegates from Belgium, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States drafted the ILO Constitution through the Labor Commission. The commission was an unprecedented union of state officials, employers, and employees.

Covering a wide array of social and economic rights, the constitution aims to establish maximum working days and weeks, an adequate living wage, protect women and children, and ensure sick leave, among other goals. Today, the ILO exists with the same tripartite structure as the Labor Commission and has the status of a United Nations specialized agency. The organization's main objectives are "to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues."

W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), U.S. educator and writer who helped create the (NAACP) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

First meeting of the Pan-African Conference

The first Pan-African Congress met in 1919 to petition delegates attending the post-World War I Paris Peace Meeting to address concerns related to Africa. Organized by W.E.B. Du Bois and including fifty-seven delegates from fifteen countries, the conference called on the victorious allied powers to commit to ruling Africa through the framework of a "condominium," under which colonial powers would rule territory on behalf of Africans. It also asked that African states begin to govern their own territory "as fast as their development permits" but did not provide a specific timeline for independence. A year later, the League of Nations Covenant would call for protection of native populations living under colonial rule.

Emperor Wilhelm II honors soldiers of General Otto von Below's army (2nd of left) with the Iron Cross at the Eastern front during World War I.

Kaiser Wilhelm II targeted for international human rights trial

Following World War I, the Treaty of Versailles called for Germany's leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to be put on trial for "supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties." Although Wilhelm escaped to Holland and was not extradited, the call for such a trial marked the first time countries considered holding heads of state responsible for extreme human rights violations. Almost one hundred years later, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court would be used to issue arrest warrants for two sitting heads of states-Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya.

Photograph of the the League of Nations, an international organization, formed after WWI to promote international peace and security, taken in 1932. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

League of Nations Covenant

Following World War I, the allied victors drafted the League of Nations Covenant (also known as the League of Nations Charter). In addition to creating the Permanent Court of International Justice to resolve disputes between states, the covenant enumerated a variety of human rights-oriented provisions. These included protections related to working conditions, indigenous populations in colonial territories, as well as enforcement of prior agreements banning the trafficking of people. The covenant also established the Mandate System, the precursor to the UN Trusteeship Council, which modestly advanced the accountability of colonial powers by outlining a method of administration for certain territories transferred from the control of one country to another. Despite the postwar sense of optimism, however, the covenant‘s authors rejected an amendment from Japan regarding the recognition of racial equality by all states.

The League of Nations also failed to act—despite explicitly banning wars of aggression—when the Empire of Japan invaded China in 1931 and Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935.

Shirin Ebadi telephones a representative of the Iranian government from International Federation for Human Rights offices on October 11, 2003. (France Keyser/CORBIS)

International Federation for Human Rights established

In 1922, twenty German and French human rights organizations established the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). A nonpartisan, nonsectarian, nongovernmental organization, the FIDH is widely credited as the first international human rights organization. Currently, it includes 164 member organizations in more than one hundred countries and focuses its efforts on protecting human rights defenders, advancing the universality of human rights, increasing the effectiveness of human rights to stop impunity against the individual, and working to improve the rule of law in times of conflict or transition.

Male slaves sit on the ground outside makeshift tents at an Ethiopian slave market in January, 1930. (Empire/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Global norms against slavery and forced labor

On March 9, 1927, the League of Nations Slavery Convention came into force. The convention explicitly defined slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” The convention also calls on states to “bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.” The International Labor Organization expanded on the antislavery convention with the Forced Labor Convention of 1930, which called for the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor. In 1957, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery elaborated on these conventions to specifically ban modern forms of slavery, which include debt bondage, serfdom, child marriage, and trafficking.

Mahatma Gandhi leading a march through the Indian countryside in defiance of the statute establishing a government salt monopoly on April 7, 1930. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Gandhi leads nonviolent protest against British salt monopoly

Seeking to protest British colonial laws mandating that Indians purchase British-manufactured salt only, Mohandas Gandhi trekked to the Indian town of Dandi to simply collect salt off the coast. Along his twenty-three day and 240-mile journey, Gandhi was joined by thousands of Indians seeking to protest the British monopoly. On reaching the coast and grabbing a pinch of salt off the beach, Gandhi allegedly declared, “With this… I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire." Millions would eventually join Gandhi‘s nonviolent campaign, which the British Empire attempted to put down with violence. India would not receive its independence from the British Empire until 1947. The protest march is widely credited for laying the foundations for and symbolizing the power of nonviolent protest.

Josef Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, is seen as he reports on the draft of a new Soviet constitution in the Kremlin in Moscow in 1936. (AP Photo)

Stalin launches a reign of terror

Hoping to accelerate the transition of the Soviet Union to communism, Soviet leader Josef Stalin launched a radical agricultural collectivization campaign, which caused widespread famine and economic misery throughout the country. Fearful of challenges to his authority, Stalin also launched a widespread purge campaign in Russia against suspected high-level saboteurs and alleged political enemies—the vast majority of whom were innocent of the crimes with which they were charged. This campaign would eventually extend to many of the original communist revolutionaries that overthrew Russia‘s Czarist government, as well as the Russian military. The Russian purges, coupled with Stalin‘s radical economic plan, are estimated to have killed more than ten million Russians.

A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers, in April or May 1943, during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter. (AP Photo)

Holocaust in Germany

From 1939 to 1945, Nazi Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, engaged in a multipronged, state-sponsored campaign of genocide targeting Jews and other minorities, such as gypsies, gays and lesbians, and communists. The abuses began in 1933 with a series of discriminatory laws that prohibited Jews from voting, holding German citizenship, or having romantic relationships with Germans, among other segregationist practices. Physically and mentally disabled persons were also progressively killed using gas, lethal injections, and starvation techniques. Ultimately, six million Jews would be exterminated in an elaborate network of concentration camps, gas chambers, mobile gas units, and mass killings. The killings vastly accelerated in 1942 as a part of Hitler‘s Final Solution plan, which called for eliminating the entire European Jewish population to create a “pure” Aryan race. All told, two-thirds of Europe‘s Jewish population was murdered.

Photograph Herbert George Wells (1866-1946), an English novelist, short story writer, and historian, taken in January 1920. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

H. G. Wells writes the “Declaration of Rights”

In December 1940, the Daily Herald published “Declaration of Rights,” inspired by H. G. Wells‘s call for a debate on why the United Kingdom was engaged in World War II. Wells argued that rights should not be considered strictly from a legal point of view, but more as critical values. His article delineated and defended many rights, including freedom from violence, personal liberty, and freedom of thought and worship. Later, the article would be revised as The World Declaration of the Rights of Man and distributed to hundreds of editors in forty-eight countries. Reportedly, the “Declaration of Rights” was even dropped behind enemy lines during the war and translated into several foreign languages.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks to the U.S. Congress on December 8, 1941 to request a declaration of war on Japan in answer to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. (CORBIS)

Roosevelt delivers “Four Freedoms” speech

In a January 1941 address to the U.S. Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined four essential freedoms that individuals “everywhere in the world” should have: of speech, of religion, from want, and from fear. These “four freedoms” would later be used as a selling point for war bonds during World War II and inspire wartime art and propaganda. Eventually, the four freedoms would be included in the preamble to UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Currently, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute awards a Four Freedoms prize to individuals who have committed themselves to defending said freedoms. Past recipients include Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Dalai Lama.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill chat aboard HMS Prince of Wales on August 14, 1941, a rendezvous that gave the world the Atlantic Charter. (AP Photo)

Roosevelt and Churchill adopt the Atlantic Charter

During a secret meeting at sea in August 1941, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill agreed to a set of principles known as the Atlantic Charter. Among many provisions, both leaders declared “that all men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from want and fear” and that peoples of all nations shall enjoy self-determination. On January 1, 1942, the Allies issued the Declaration of the United Nations, which embraced the principles of the Atlantic Charter as an expression of war aims. Some scholars suggest that the Atlantic Charter marked the beginning of a new era of U.S. foreign policy and provided the early inspirations—and the namesake—for the United Nations.

Photograph of Japanese-Americans interned at Santa Anita, California taken ca. 1942. (CORBIS)

Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (EO), authorizing the secretary of war to create special “military areas” in the United States due to concerns over potential espionage during World War II. This would eventually lead to the forced relocation of more than 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast of the United States to internment camps. Although the EO would claim the action was enacted for “military necessity,” in June 1983 the U.S. government Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians would conclude that these concerns “were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” President Carter nullified the EO in 1976, and the U.S. government officially apologized for the internment in 1988.

Establishing a Global Regime

Delegates signing the UN Charter at a ceremony held at the Veteran’s War Memorial Building on 26 June 1945. (Yuuld/UN Photo)

United Nations established

After World War II, the international community faced a daunting task—to ensure that such violence and devastation would never happen again. On October 24, 1945, fifty-one countries ratified the binding charter of the United Nations (UN). It established an international institution that was unprecedented in mandate and scope—dedicated not only to the preservation of international peace, but also to the promotion of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. Today, 193 states are members of the UN.

The UN comprises two main governing bodies, the General Assembly (UNGA) and the Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC—composed of five permanent members, the United States, Great Britain, France, China, and Russia—holds the ultimate power to determine what constitutes aggression and a threat to peace.

The founding members of the UN aspired to create an international institution that would protect individual rights, govern interactions in times of armed conflict, and provide services to regions during extreme emergencies. In 1946, for example, the UNGA established the International Children‘s Emergency Fund to assist children in areas devastated by World War II. The same year, the Commission on Human Rights (replaced by the UN Human Rights Council in 2006) was created as a global forum to monitor human rights in specific countries.

Nazi defendants (L-R front row) Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Wilhelm Keitel sit in the dock of their war crimes trial at Nuremberg circa 1945-1946. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Nuremberg and Tokyo trials

In 1945, the victorious allies of World War II chartered an international military tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, to prosecute war criminals in Europe. Convened within months of the end of World War II, the Nuremberg trials expanded upon the United Nations Charter and, for the first time, codified war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. Most significantly, crimes against humanity were defined as the persecution of a civilian population on “political, racial, or religious grounds.” Henceforth, international law regarding these crimes would supersede domestic law. Twelve Nazi leaders were eventually hanged for their crimes. The trial also led to the development of the Nuremberg Principles, a set of parameters that identify what constitutes a war crime. Unprecedented in international law, the principles include individual responsibility for war crimes, an end to sovereign immunity, the supremacy of international law, and an end to the superior orders defense.

In 1946, following the example of Nuremberg, the United States established an international military tribunal for Asia. All twenty-eight Japanese political and military leaders tried were found guilty and indicted on fifty-five counts of crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, and conventional war crimes. Seven were sentenced to death.

A large force of police is shown clearing a street in Algiers, Algeria with tear gas after some twenty-thousand French settlers staged a demonstration that developed into a riot on arrival of new French Premier Guy Mollet, on February 8, 1956. (Bettman/ Corbis)


In the years following World War II, the British, French, Dutch, and Italian colonial empires relinquished their territorial holdings around the world. After the establishment of the United Nations (UN) and the ratification of the UN Charter, it became increasingly difficult for states to justify colonialism given the broader emergence of human rights law. The United States gave up the Philippines in 1946. Britain relinquished India in 1947, Palestine in 1948, and Egypt in 1956, and slowly withdrew from Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. The French left Vietnam in 1954 and withdrew from North Africa by 1962. The wave of decolonization greatly expanded the number of UN member states and had a significant impact on international human rights discourse as former colonies asserted their right to self-determination.

Photograph of the Organization of American States’ Hall of Heroes taken on April 12, 2007. (OAS/OEA/Juan Manuel Herrera)

Declaration of the rights of man by the Organization of American States

In April 1948, American states convened in Bogota, Columbia, and formed the Organization of the American States (OAS) to foster unity and cooperation among states of the Western Hemisphere. Contemporaneously, the new organization adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man as its founding doctrine, which catalogued the civil and political rights to be upheld by member states. Predating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations by several months, the declaration affirmed the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, derived from intrinsic “attributes of his human personality” rather than from a specific nationality.

In 1978, the OAS expanded on the declaration with the American Convention on Human Rights, also known as the San Jose Pact. The convention currently has twenty-four parties and includes two additional protocols concerning economic, social, and cultural rights as well as a death penalty prohibition. Overall, the convention is weighted toward ensuring civil and political rights rather than economic, social, and cultural rights. The treaty also identifies the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Inter-American Court as its monitoring mechanisms. The United States has signed but not ratified the convention.

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States holding a UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights poster in Spanish in November 1949, at the United Nations. (UN Photo)

United Nations adopts Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The end of World War II ushered in a period of normative advancements in the realm of human rights and hopes that the horrors and atrocities of the war would never be repeated again. On December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly officially adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by a vote of forty-eight in favor and zero against, with eight abstentions.

Comprising thirty articles, the UDHR expands on the UN Charter and specifically delineates rights. The declaration stands as the first comprehensive international agreement that codified the universal rights and freedoms to which all human beings are inherently entitled, including social and economic rights as well as civil and political rights.

Although the UDHR was not legally binding and contained no enforcement mechanism, it was an important step in establishing the universal obligations of all states regarding the treatment of their citizens.

Judges of the European Court of Human Rights arrive at the beginning of an hearing on the Yukos versus Russia case in Strasbourg March 4, 2010.

Europe moves towards Rights

During and after the atrocities of World War II, Winston Churchill advocated for a "kind of United States of Europe" to serve as a regional complement to the United Nations, focused exclusively on enabling European countries to "dwell in peace, safety, and freedom." On May 5, 1949, the Council of Europe was founded to safeguard and promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. The founding statute sought to bind European states together by common ideals, principles, and heritage. According to the statute, any European state could become a member of the council if it accepted fundamental freedoms and rights for its citizens. Today, the Council of Europe has forty-seven member states and spans virtually the entire European continent.

In the Council of Europe's first full year, member nations drafted the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), an international treaty protecting human rights. The ECHR also established the European Court of Human Rights, through which any individual who feels that his or her rights have been violated by a state can be heard in a court of law. The ability for an individual to bring a case against a state was unprecedented in Europe's legal history.

A general view of the chamber during the signing of the Geneva Conventions setting forth new rules of war, in December 1949.

Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 is an international body of law encompassing four separate conventions that together seek to protect the individual in times of war for humanitarian purposes by regulating armed conflict and its effects.

President of the International Commission of Jurists, John Dowd, at a press conference on October 17, 2011. (Tracey Nearmy/EPA/CORBIS)

Founding of International Commission of Jurists

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting human rights through the rule and implementation of international law. Founded in the memory of a German lawyer executed for espionage after publicly exposing the human rights violations committed in the Soviet Union, the ideological roots and agenda of the ICJ were profoundly shaped by the context of the Cold War. Today, the ICJ has broadened its mandate and scope with chapters in more than seventy countries around the world.

Refugees looking for shelter in December 1945. This handful of women and children are all that survived of 150 persons who left Lodz, Poland to trek to Berlin. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees comes into force

The Refugee Convention originated in the aftermath of World War II to help thousands of displaced Europeans. On July 28, 1951, the convention was formally adopted by the UN General Assembly with a limited mandate of three years. Rooted in Article 14 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognized the “rights of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries,” the convention established the legal document that defines refugees, their rights, and the legal obligations of states regarding refugees. In 1954, the agency charged with implementing the convention, the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, received the Nobel Peace Prize for its groundbreaking work with refugees in Europe. Faced with a number of refugee crises in the following decades, the UN General Assembly removed all geographic and temporal restrictions from the convention in 1967.

Budapest rebel demonstrations during a revolution against the Soviet-backed Hungarian regime, in November 1956. (Michael Rougier/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Hungarian revolution

In the aftermath of World War II, the formerly democratic Hungarian government fell under the Soviet Union‘s sphere of influence and transitioned towards communism. Under the authoritarian rule of Mátyás Rákosi, a communist trained in Moscow, the Hungarian people faced political repression and economic decline. After the creation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, which bound Hungary and other Eastern European countries to the policies of the Soviet Union, social unrest reached new heights. On October 23, 1956, a student-led protest sparked a spontaneous revolution throughout the country, culminating in the fall of the communist government and the installation of a multiparty Hungarian national government. On November 4, despite a declaration of neutrality by the Hungarian prime minister, Soviet armies invaded Hungary and violently overthrew the new government. Immediately after the Soviet invasion, thousands of Hungarians were arrested, and several hundred were subsequently executed. More than 200,000 Hungarians fled the country as refugees.

A general view of the construction works of a dam ordered by Mao Zedong in his Great Leap Forward policy, in January 1958. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Great Leap Forward in China

The Great Leap Forward was a socioeconomic campaign waged by the Communist Party in China between 1958 and 1961 with the ultimate goal of transforming China‘s historically agrarian economy into a modern communist society through collectivization and rapid industrialization. The state violently enforced the mandatory process of agricultural collectivization, in which private farming was prohibited and violators were persecuted. In the combination of misguided social and economic policies, unsustainable pressure on rural communities, and poor crop yields that ensued, millions of Chinese people ultimately starved to death.

A picture of the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington, DC. (James Leynse/CORBIS)

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created to advise the OAS

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is an autonomous organization created by the Organization of American States in 1960 to promote and protect human rights as defined by the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The IACHR receives and investigates individual petitions of human rights violations, and monitors the human rights situations in member countries. It also regularly issues reports on human rights abuses.

A photograph of a UN relief worker carnig for homeless, stateless children in Germany taken on November 7, 1945. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons comes into force

During the early twentieth century, refugees and stateless personsthose without a nationality‚Ä“‚Ä“were indistinguishable before international law. However, the massive population displacement and geopolitical realignment that followed World War II focused international attention on the problem of statelessness. Article 15 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 affirmed that “everyone has the right to a nationality,” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” In 1954, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted a resolution to “regulate and improve the status of stateless persons by an international agreement.” On June 6, 1960, the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons entered into force, extending basic human rights and legal protection to all people without a nationality.

Amnesty International’s secretary-general, Irene Khan, shows a document about the arrest of the Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, during the 1964-84 military dictatorship in Brazil, at a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, November 10, 2003. (Bruno Domingos/SM/GN/Courtesy Reuters)

Amnesty International established

After learning about two Portuguese men being sentenced to prison for “raising a toast to freedom” in a bar, British lawyer Peter Benneson published an article on May 28, 1961, in the Observer newspaper titled “Forgotten Prisoners.” The article launched the Appeal for Amnesty 1961 campaign. The appeal told the stories of six “prisoners of conscience” from different countries and of different political and religious backgrounds, all jailed for peacefully expressing their political or religious beliefs, and called on governments everywhere to free such prisoners. It set forth a simple plan of action, calling for strictly impartial, nonpartisan appeals to be made on behalf of these prisoners and any who, like them, had been imprisoned for peacefully expressed beliefs.

The response to this appeal was larger than anyone had expected. Later, an international secretariat would be established and the organization would continue to grow and cover a myriad of other human rights issues including the death penalty, reproductive rights, freedom of expression, and corporate responsibility. In 1977, Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work against torture. As of 2010, Amnesty International had more than three million members in more than 150 different countries.

Martin Luther King, Junior delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech on August 28, 1963. (Bob Adelman/CORBIS)

Martin Luther King delivers “I Have a Dream” speech

A preacher by profession, Martin Luther King Jr. became a leading figure in the American civil rights movement, renowned for his nonviolent methods of protest against inequality, discrimination, poverty, injustice, and war. In 1957, King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization founded to provide leadership in the nascent civil rights movement. King was a tireless advocate for the basic principles of human rights, traveling throughout the country and participating in countless protests. On August 28, 1963, King delivered his most celebrated speech, “I Have a Dream,” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, to a crowd of more than 200,000 people. Drawing on biblical references and American democratic principles, King‘s speech is remembered as a defining moment in the fight against racial inequality. In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and became the youngest person in history to receive the distinction. His life was cut short in April 1968 by an assassin‘s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee.

A Chinese girl, dressed as a Red Guard performs in front of a portrait of the late Chairman Mao Zedong at a restaurant named "Red Classic" in Beijing April 7, 2006.

Cultural Revolution

Following what many within China considered to be the failure of his Great Leap Forward policy, Communist Party chairman Mao Zeodong called for a widespread campaign to eliminate those within China who still favored capitalism over communism. The movement led to the establishment of the Red Guards, groups of radical youth committed to violently fulfilling Mao's vision for the cultural cleansing of China. During the roughly ten years of the Cultural Revolution, numerous colleges and universities were shut down, intellectuals were harassed, and many high-level government insiders who opposed Mao's efforts were purged. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese either died or were tortured in China's prisons. The Cultural Revolution did not end until Mao's death in 1976.

Ambassador Salvador P. Lopez (Philippines) is seen signing UN human rights conventions on December 20, 1966.

Universal rights treaties opened for signature

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are treaties that legally bind states to uphold human rights. Initially, the covenants were intended to be one document, but ideological differences between UN member states, specifically within the broader Cold War context, and between developing and developed countries, ultimately forced the separation of civil and political rights from socioeconomic rights.

The ICESCR entered into force in January 1976, and enumerates “positive” rights for states to progressively provide citizens, such as the right to an education, health, acceptable labor conditions, and an adequate standard of living. Although the Carter administration signed it in 1976, the covenant has not been ratified by the United States.

The ICCPR reaffirms the right to self-determination and so-called negative rights, such as protection from imprisonment without due process, invasion of privacy, and persecution for religion. Unlike the ICESCR, states are expected to guarantee the right listed in the convention on its ratification. The Carter administration signed the ICCPR in 1977, but the United States did not ratify the agreement until June 1992. Integral to U.S. ratification was a complex list of reservations, including the right to impose the death penalty on criminals younger than eighteen.

Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in central Prague during the first day of Soviet-led invasion to then Czechoslovakia August 21, 1968. (Czech-Russia/Libor Hajsky/Invasion Courtesy Reuters)

Prague Spring

The Prague Spring was a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia under the Soviet Union‘s sphere of influence. Beginning in January 1968 with the election of reformer Alexander Dubcek, the Prague Spring witnessed a series of reforms to decentralize and democratize the country, including the relaxing of restrictions on media and speech. Threatened by the democratizing forces, in August 1968 the Soviet Union and troops from other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia and occupied the country until 1990. Although the invasion incurred relatively few casualties, in stark contrast to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the end of the Prague Spring triggered a massive wave of emigration. All reforms were reversed, with the exception of the decision to divide the country in two, creating the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

High-level officials at the International Conference on Human Rights in 1968, New Majlis Building, Teheran. (UN Photo)

International Conference on Human Rights held in Tehran

During April and May 1968, the United Nations convened the International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran, Iran. Marking the twentieth anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the conference stressed that countries should redouble their efforts at accomplishing the items listed in the UDHR. The conference‘s final outcome document places a heavy emphasis on work to prevent racial discrimination and rejection of apartheid. It also addresses women‘s rights, the need to lower global illiteracy rates, and recognition of the right to self-determination. All 120 countries attending the conference accepted the conference‘s final outcome document.

A black man rides a bus restricted only to white people in Durban, South Africa, in 1986. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination comes into force

On January 4, 1969, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) came into force, having secured the minimum number of ratifications—thirty-two—required to do so. The CERD defines the term racial discrimination and includes provisions concerning the prevention of discrimination and the promotion of interracial tolerance. Unlike other UN rights conventions, the CERD includes a complaint mechanism rather than leaving implementation to an optional protocol requiring supplemental ratification by UN member states. The convention also established the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which receives update reports regarding the progress of countries in implementing the CERD. Currently, the CERD has 174 parties. On October 21, 1994, the United States signed and ratified the convention, along with several reservations.

In the days following the military coup in which General Augusto Pinochet ousted President Salvador Allende, Santiago's national stadium became a prison camp for opponents of the new regime.

Rights abuses in Chile and Argentina

In the latter half of the twentieth century, popular discontent with acute inequality in Latin America inspired socialist movements and intense political conflict across the continent. In response to the gains of socialist political parties, conservative military juntas seized power in Chile 1973 and in Argentina in 1976. To maintain political control, the various authoritarian leaders launched widespread campaigns of violent repression against suspected dissidents.

In total, approximately 250,000 citizens were detained as political prisoners in the first four months of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's rule. In Argentina, death estimates range from 10,000 to 30,000 people. Suspects were systematically tortured, and many dissidents and their families vanished, becoming known simply as "the disappeared."

Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn (center), in exile, at Langenbroich, West Germany, in February 1974.

Solzhenitsyn publishes 'The Gulag Archipelago'

The Gulag Archipelago is an account of the Soviet forced labor and concentration camp system that spanned more than three decades, from the revolution in 1917 until the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. A wide range of prisoners were sent to the camps, although it was widely recognized as an instrument of political repression. Millions of people died in the labor system due to a combination of extreme climatic conditions, hard manual labor, and malnutrition, but the exact number remains unknown. Published in 1973 only in the West, the book is based on primary research and Solzhenitsyn's experience in the camps. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 for his work.

Authorities say that fresh remains from the Camobdian Genocide are still being uncovered at this mass execution site near Phnom Penh.

Cambodian Genocide

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot perpetrated a widespread and systematic genocide against the Cambodian people, killing approximately 1.7 million people (roughly 20 percent of the population). Under the auspices of what was called a worker-peasant revolution, the Khmer Rouge deported the urban population into the countryside and forced Cambodians to become unpaid agricultural workers. Brutal labor conditions, disease, and starvation killed hundreds of thousands. The government also targeted and executed a range of political groups and any suspected opponents or rivals, including many members of the Khmer Rouge rank and file. The genocide campaign ended when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in January 1979.

International observers were initially hesitant to label the crimes of the Khmer Rouge as genocide, because the victims were generally targeted for their political ideology, which does not technically fall under the United Nations's (UN) definition of genocide. Nonetheless, the current Cambodian government and the UN established a national tribunal in 2006 to try the leaders of the Khmer Rouge for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

In Helsinki, Finland, thirty-four of thirty-five foreign ministers stand together for a joint picture in July 1973.

Helsinki Accords

The first Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) opened in Helsinki, Finland, on July 3, 1973, and concluded on August 1, 1975, with the adoption of the Helsinki Accords. The accords-between the United States, Soviet Union, and almost every country in Europe-represented a major diplomatic effort to reduce tensions between the eastern and western blocs. In exchange for recognition of the Soviet Union's territorial hegemony, the agreement committed all parties to the recognition of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The humanitarian provisions of the Helsinki Accords were grouped together in Basket III, which included the promotion of political, civic, economic, and cultural rights; freedom to travel; and freedom of information.

In 1978, a nongovernmental organization called Helsinki Watch was established to monitor Warsaw Pact-area compliance with the human rights and humanitarian components of the Helsinki Accords, relying on the practice of "naming and shaming" governments that did not comply fully with the agreement. Eventually, other human rights groups were launched (including Asia Watch, Africa Watch, and Middle East Watch) that subsequently coalesced under the umbrella organization of Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW later evolved into one of the most internationally respected human rights nongovernmental organizations and won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for its work toward a global ban on landmines.

Human Rights in Conflict

The Statue of Justice is seen on top of the London Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey in London on August 12, 2005. (Russell Boyce/Courtesy Reuters).

Division of rights into three generations

Karel Vasak, the Czech-French first secretary-general of the International Institute of Human Rights, proposed the division of human rights into three broad categories: first generation, or civil and political rights; second generation, or social and economic rights; and third generation, or solidarity rights. First-generation rights are primarily rooted in the English, American, and French revolutions, whereas second-generation rights have their origins in socialist traditions as they involve the enhanced involvement of government. Third-generation rights are more difficult to define as they involve a global redistribution of wealth and power, such as the right to a healthy environment and the right to a cultural heritage. The generational definition of rights falls along the fault lines of the debate between universalism and cultural relativism, in which some scholars argue that certain cultures place greater emphasis on second-generation rights than others.

Former Polish president and Solidarity founding leader Lech Walesa (left) speaks to workers during a strike at the Gdansk shipyard, on August 8, 1980. (Str Old/Courtesy Reuters)

Solidarity trade union established

On August 31, 1980, the first noncommunist authorized trade union within the Warsaw Pact alliance, Solidarity, was established at the Gdańsk shipyard in Poland. Its membership soon swelled to more than nine million and Solidarity became both a powerful political force and a symbol of the demand for increased civil and political rights within Poland. Following frequent clashes, communist authorities within the Polish government imposed martial law in 1981, but Solidarity remained active. Eventually, Solidarity made major gains during Poland‘s 1989 semi-contested election and provided a model for other noncommunist opposition movements in Europe and elsewhere. The union‘s leader, Lech Wałęsa, eventually became the president of Poland in December of 1990. Solidarity is now a political party in Poland.

An Afghan policeman keeps watch as women arrive at a polling station in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on September 18, 2010. (Parqiz/Courtesy Reuters)

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in force

On September 3, 1981, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) came into force. Described as an international bill of rights for women, the convention clarifies the term discrimination: “Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

CEDAW also established the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women to monitor the implementation of the convention. Eight states have yet to ratify or accede to the treaty: Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tonga, and the United States.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad pictured in 1994. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Hama massacre in Syria

Seeking to crush a revolt by Sunni Muslims against Syria‘s ruling Ba‘athist regime, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria conducted a scorched-earth campaign in the Syrian city of Hama in February 1982. Before the attack, an Islamic-inspired uprising in the city against al-Assad‘s regime had declared the city liberated. The goal of the regime‘s campaign was to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood organization, which maintained a stronghold in the city.

Bombarding the city from air and land using bombers, tanks, and ground troops, the assault killed an estimated 20,000 people, and severely gutted the Muslim Brotherhood‘s ability to operate in Syria. In the summer of 2011, Hafez al-Assad‘s son Bashar al-Assad, current president of Syria, launched a similar campaign against Hama in an attempt to squelch unrest in the city.

A teacher in India helps young students with their lessons on February 1, 1987. (Robert MAASS/CORBIS)

UN adopts Declaration on the Right to Development

On December 4, 1986, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Right to Development. First recognized in Article 22 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples‘ Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter) in 1981, the right to development was codified as an “inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.” The declaration also stated that “all human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible and interdependent” and called for UN member states to recommit themselves to achieving civil, political, economic, social, and other rights. Marking the first UN endorsement of the right to development, the United States voted against the resolution on the grounds of conceptual confusion, jurisdictional conflict, and a resistance to international regulation. Despite U.S. objections, the resolution served as the basis for future UN development-oriented activity, including the Millennium Development Goals.

A man walks past a memorial wall inscribed with the names of the five thousand people killed in a gas attack in Iraq in 1988 in a photo taken on August 21, 2006 in Halabja, Iraq. (Ceerwin Aziz/Courtesy Reuters)

Iraq uses chemical weapons against Kurds

Iraqi military aircraft deployed chemical weapons including VX, Sarin, and Tabun against its minority Kurdish population in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja on March 16, 1987. An estimated 3,200 to 5,000 people perished in the attack and another 7,000 to 10,000 are estimated to have been injured, suffering a variety of secondary effects ranging from cancer to birth defects. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein allegedly ordered the attacks to stop Kurdish guerilla fighters from operating in the area during the Iran-Iraq War. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a special Iraqi tribunal charged Iraq‘s former defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, with orchestrating the attacks; he was ultimately executed. In March 2010, the chemical weapons attack was declared an act of genocide by Iraq‘s Supreme Court.

Bent Sorensen, a Danish doctor and vice-chairman of the U.N. Committee against Torture, gestures during a press conference in Geneva, May 9, 1997. (STR Old/Courtesy Reuters)

UN Torture Convention comes into force

On June 26, 1987, the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Torture Convention) entered into force. Twenty states ratified the accord immediately and almost 150 have done so since then, including the United States. The convention defines torture and establishes a universal ban on the practice under any circumstance. It also establishes a UN Committee Against Torture, which receives update reports from UN member states concerning their implementation of the accord every four years. After receiving state reports, the committee offers its nonbinding comments and recommendations to the submitting party. In 2006, an optional protocol to the Torture Convention came into force, establishing an inspection system for detention facilities where torture might occur.

Delegates of states ratifying the Genocide Conventon taken on October 14, 1950. (UN photo)

United States ratifies Genocide Convention

Forty years after being drafted in the wake of World War II, the United States ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The accord had faced opposition in the U.S. Senate as legislators worried that Americans could be put at risk for prosecution if the convention ever became U.S. law. However, following 3,211 speeches by Senator William Proxmire calling for the United States to ratify the convention, as well as support for the convention by the Reagan administration, the U.S. Senate voted to ratify. Critics, however, suggest that the assortment of reservations and stipulations linked to its ratification of the Genocide Convention limit the applicability and enforcement of the treaty.

An iconic picture of a Chinese man standing in front of tanks heading down Cangan Boulevard near Beijing Hotel, China, June 5, 1989. (Jeff Widener/AP Photo)

Tiananmen Square massacre

Student protests calling for political liberalization in Beijing‘s Tiananmen Square were brutally quashed by Chinese authorities on June 4, 1989. Students had initially gathered to memorialize former Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, but were soon joined by intellectuals and workers in calls for democratic reform and refused to comply with instructions to vacate the square.

Following the declaration of martial law on May 20, senior leadership authorized the military to take action against the protestors on June 4. Estimates of fatal casualties vary greatly, but at least several hundred died in the crackdown. The Chinese government maintains that accounts of the event are exaggerated, and that dispersing the protestors was critical to preventing social disorder from spreading throughout the country.

Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet, displays the Nobel Peace Prize at Oslo University’s Avla Hall in Norway on December 10, 1989. (Inge Gjellesvik/AP Photo)

Dalai Lama wins Nobel Peace Prize

In October 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent campaign to promote autonomy from China in his homeland of Tibet. At the age of two, the Dalai Lama had been selected as the fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha. Exiled from Tibet in 1959, he was recognized by the Nobel committee for his forty-year commitment to nonviolence as a means to promote the political and religious rights of Tibetans. Dalai Lama literally means “Ocean of Wisdom.”

On learning that he had won the prize, the Dalai Lama declared, “I always believed in love, compassion and a sense of universal respect. Every human being has that potential. My case is nothing special. I am a simple Buddhist monk—no more, no less.’”

A general view of the opening session of the 8th Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the "Organization of Islamic Cooperation") Summit in Tehran’s new conference building on December 9, 1997. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam

Adopted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now called the “Organization of Islamic Cooperation”) in 1990 in Cairo, Egypt, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) provides an overview of the Islamic perspective on human rights, consistent with the Islamic religious text of the Quran and tenets of Sharia. The CDHRI is intended to be a guideline for predominantly Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt. The CDHRI enumerates many of the same fundamental rights as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other international human rights documents, although it includes the caveat that all rights are subject to Sharia. The document also does not address freedom of religion, minority rights, or women‘s suffrage.

The creation of CDHRI as an Islamic alternative to UDHR reflects a longstanding debate on whether human rights are universal or culturally relative. Since the inception of UDHR, some have criticized it as rooted in a Western moral and political tradition.

New Jersey senator Bill Bradley (center) chairs a press conference with actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Liv Ullmann, right, and 10-year-old Aiyanna Meghoo of New York, announcing the formation of the Advisory Council on the Rights of the Child at the United Nations, January 24, 1990. (Marty Lederhandler/AP Photo)

Convention on the Rights of the Child comes into force

On September 2, 1990, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) officially came into force, marking the thirtieth anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. The accord enumerates specific political, economic, social, and other rights accorded to children, defined as persons under eighteen, unless a national law designates a younger age. To monitor compliance, the accord creates a UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Since ratification, two protocols have been added: one banning the involvement of children in military activity and other prohibiting child pornography, child prostitution, and the sale of children. The CRC is one of the most widely ratified UN accords, although the United States, Somalia, and South Sudan all remain exceptions.

Aung San Suu Kyi wears a Burmese flower called "patauk" in her hair while meeting reporters at her Rangoon home on July 19, 1995. (Luis D’Orey/Courtesy Reuters)

Aung San Suu Kyi wins Nobel Peace Prize

On October 14, 1991, the Nobel Prize committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Burmese democracy advocate and political activist Aung San Suu Kyi for her “nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The award was given based on the committee‘s view that “Suu Kyi’s struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.” Suu Kyi suffered prolonged periods of house arrest between 1995 and 2010. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her commitment to democracy and human rights in 2000. Released from her nearly two decades of house arrest in November 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi resumed her endeavor to promote political reform in Myanmar and announced that she would run for a seat in the country‘s parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won forty-three out of the forty-five contested seats in the April 2012 by-elections and on May 2, 2012, Suu-Kyi took the Parliamentary oath of office.

A view of a street in the southern city of Mostar during the war in Bosnia on June 20, 1992. (Nikola Solic/Courtesy Reuters).

Security Council condemns ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina

On November 16, 1992, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 787, which called for an immediate halt to the practice of “ethnic cleansing” taking place in Bosnia and Herzegovina and for that country‘s territorial independence. The resolution also harshly criticized the actions of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which included undermining the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It passed with thirteen votes in favor and two abstentions, from China and Zimbabwe.

Ratko Mladic, military leader of Bosnian Serbs, at a UN sponsored conference in Pale to discuss a peace plan during the siege of Sarajevo during August 1993. (Tom Pilston/PANOS)

International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia established

On May 25, 1993, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 827, which established the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the wake of mass atrocities throughout Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the conflict‘s most infamous massacre at Srebenica, the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic ordered the killing of seven thousand Muslim men over the course of five days.

The ICTY is charged with prosecuting individuals who committed gross violations of international law in the territory of former Yugoslavia after 1991. Specifically, it can determine culpability in four main areas: major violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, breaches of the laws or customs of war, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The ICTY has indicted more than 160 people for alleged violations of international law and remains active today. It was the first ad hoc international war crimes tribunal since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials in the wake of World War II.

Overall view of the opening session of the UN World Conference on Human Rights on June 14 1993. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Vienna Declaration adopted

At the Second World Conference on Human Rights, held in June 1993, 171 UN member states adopted the Vienna Declaration and Program for Action, which sought to bolster the UN‘s capacity to promote and protect human rights. Delegations intensely debated the universality of human rights versus their origin in specific cultures, but the document ultimately stressed the indivisibility of civil and political rights from economic and social rights—specifically referencing the rights of children, migrant workers, indigenous people, and women. The UN General Assembly ultimately endorsed the declaration.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson gestures during a news conference at United Nations European Headquarter in Geneva on March 20, 2000. (Pascal Volery/Courtesy Reuters)

OHCHR established

To implement its provisions, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action established the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which was approved by the UN General Assembly in December 1993. OHCHR supervises and coordinates UN action related to human rights, in addition to supporting principal rights organs such as the current UN Human Rights Council. At times, the OHCHR has issued controversial criticisms, such as the condemnation of the U.S. strike against al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden—a position that contradicted the UN secretary-general‘s statement in support of the raid.

Pictures of people killed during the Rwandan genovide donated by survivors are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Rwanda on February 2, 2006. (Radu Sigheti/Courtesy Reuters).

Rwandan genocide

The Hutu ruling majority in Rwanda targeted the country‘s minority Tutsi population in an extermination campaign from April through July 2004. An estimated eight hundred thousand people were killed.

In May of that year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights convened an emergency session and appointed a rapporteur to investigate news of widespread slaughter in Rwanda, but the action was unable to halt the violence. Many criticized the UN and countries on the UN Security Council for not doing enough to prevent the genocide or stop it once it was clear that genocide was occurring. In 1999, “The UN Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the United Nations During the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda,” blamed the lack of response on both the UN system as a whole and a lack of political will from member states.

Nelson Mandela is sworn in as first black South African President in Pretoria May 10, 1994. (Peter Andrews/Courtesy Reuters)

Nelson Mandela assumes presidency of South Africa

After the fall of South Africa‘s apartheid regime, former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa on May 10, 1994. Ending three centuries of white rule and marking the termination of the universally condemned race-based apartheid policies of the previous government, Mandela declared, “Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by the other.” Mandela‘s party, the African National Congress, won 252 of 400 seats in South Africa‘s first democratic election.

As early as 1973, the UN General Assembly had established the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which criminalized apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

First Lady Hillary Clinton addresses a special session of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing Tuesday, September 5, 1995. (Doug Mills/AP Photo)

Beijing conference on women’s rights

In September 2005, the UN held its fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Attended by 189 countries and more than two thousand nongovernmental organizations, the conference came to consensus on a five-year plan with benchmarks for achieving women‘s rights: the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. In particular, the conference focused on promoting “gender mainstreaming” in national governments and the UN system, as well as combating entrenched stereotypes of women‘s social, economic, and political status.

A B52 bomber is watched by a group of curious onlookers as it lands at RAF Fairford February 21, 1999. (Dylan Martinez/Courtesy Reuters)

NATO launches strikes in Kosovo

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) struck Serbian military installations and forces in what it called a humanitarian war to protect the country‘s minority ethnic Albanian population against ethnic cleansing by the Serbian military. An estimated 90 percent of the Kosovo ethnic Albanian population was displaced during the war. The UN Security Council did not authorize the strikes because of the threat of a Russian veto. The extent to which the strikes actually succeeded in protecting Yugoslavia‘s Albanian population remains disputed. At the end of the war, UN Security Council Resolution 1244 made Yugoslavia‘s Kosovo province a UN protectorate. Later, the Independent International Commission on Kosovo concluded that the NATO actions were technically illegal under international law but still legitimate given the humanitarian crisis in the country.

UN secretary-general elect, Kofi Annan, speaks at his first press conference at the United Nations in New York, December 18, 1996. (Peter Morgan/Courtesy Reuters)

UN Global Compact launched

Launched by then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in June 2000, the UN Global Compact is a broad-based program promoting sustainable and socially responsible practices among global business enterprises around the world. Focusing on ten core principles, the compact seeks to promote human rights, labor rights, the protection of the environment, and various anticorruption measures. Six UN agencies participate: the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Environmental Program, International Labor Organization, UN Development Program, UN Industrial Development Organization, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Despite the widespread attention the initiative has received, the UN Global Compact program has faced criticism from some labor and human rights activists, because companies participate only on a volunteer basis and are not legally bound to follow the ten principles. In response, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, submitted by UN special representative for business and human rights, John. G. Ruggie in 2011. The new framework, a result of on-site investigations and collaboration between scholars, business leaders, and labor representatives, clarifies best business practices and how governments can better ensure accountability within the private sector.

Amnesty International members protest in front of the White House in Washington January 11, 2012.(Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters).

New global focus on terrorism

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1368 (UNSCR 1368) which condemned the 9/11 attacks “in the strongest terms” and spearheaded an international effort to increase cooperation to prevent terrorist attacks and prosecute perpetrators. For the first time, UNSCR 1368 listed terrorism as a threat to international peace and security. However, tensions soon emerged between aggressively targeting terrorist activity and protecting civil liberties as well as the rights of suspected and convicted terrorists.

In particular, the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has earned significant criticism for the imprisonment conditions, alleged torture, and delayed trials of detainees. In October 2003, the Red Cross issued a report warning that the mental health of prisoners at the facility was at risk. The George W. Bush administration countered that the prisoners there were not legal combatants and would not be afforded the protections given to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

International Community Responds

Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Ryan, presents intruments of ratification to Hans Corell, United Nations under-secretary-general for legal affairs, at a ceremony where the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was ratified in April 2002. (Peter Morgan/Courtesy Reuters).

International Criminal Court comes into force

On July 1, 2002, the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court (ICC) when sixty countries ratified the document. The court has jurisdiction to try cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and (in 2017) the crime of aggression. It is the first permanent, treaty-based world court to prosecute such crimes. It was designed to run on the principle of complementarity, whereby the court is approached as a last resort after national courts have proven unable or unwilling to properly conduct a trial. The Rome Statute is noteworthy—and controversial—in its granting the court jurisdiction over the nationals of states not party to the Rome Statute, for granting prosecutorial independence, and for allowing ICC judges to determine the adequacy of national judicial proceedings.

The court can prosecute cases occurring within the territory of parties to the Rome Statute in three cases: upon the request of a state party, upon a decision of the UN Security Council, or upon referral by the ICC chief prosecutor. The ICC seized global attention in February 2009 by issuing its first arrest warrant for a sitting head of state, Sudan‘s Omar al-Bashir. As of September 2012, the ICC had 121 state parties, and has launched seven investigations into events in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Libya. Notably, the United States is not party to the ICC and does not recognize its jurisdiction over U.S. citizens. To shield its military and citizens from potential prosecution, the George W. Bush administration signed more than one hundred bilateral agreements with other states, collectively known as Article 98 agreements.

Alicia Lima picks rice in front of her house in Guaribas, Brazil, in 2006. (Bruno Domingos/Courtesy Reuters)

UN links human rights, the environment, and sustainable development

In April 2003, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution emphasizing a broad and clear connection between human rights, the protection of the environment, and sustainable development. Overall, the resolution reaffirmed that “that peace, security, stability and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development, as well as respect for cultural diversity are essential for achieving sustainable development.”

As a follow-up measure, the UN Human Rights Council, in 2008, passed a resolution titled “Human Rights and Climate Change.” The resolution directed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other relevant UN agencies to conduct analyses clarifying how climate affects human rights. It also noted that the “world‘s poor are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change; in particular those concentrated in high-risk areas, and also tend to have more limited adaptation capacities.”

People bathe at a collective housing for migrant workers from Myanmar near Mae Sot in northwest Thailand on October 15, 2010. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

UN Convention to Protect Migrants

The groundbreaking UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families came into force on July 1, 2003—more than a decade after it was drafted. The convention guarantees rights to all migrant workers, regardless of documentation, and their family members. It expressly forbids servitude and requests that states provide migrant workers freedom of movement. The rights for documented workers differ slightly from those for undocumented workers, the former having rights to form unions and have absences from work. Currently, the accord only has forty-four parties. In 2005, the UN estimated (PDF) the total number of migrant workers in the world at somewhere between 185 and 192 million. The United States has neither signed nor ratified the convention.

African Union (AU) Commission Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare addresses the AU’s Heads of State Summit in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa on January 29, 2007. (Andrew Heavens/Courtesy Reuters)

African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights established

On January 24, 2004, the African Court on Human and People‘s Rights (ACHPR) came into force, vested with the primary responsibility of interpreting disputes related to the interpretation of the African Charter on Human and People‘s Rights. In 2008, the court began a merging process with the African Court of Justice to become the African Court for Justice and People‘s Rights. As of March 2011, twenty-six of the African Union‘s fifty-three members had joined.

The court relies on the African Union to enforce its decisions, principally through sanctions, and issued its first judgment in 2009. In April 2011, it ordered its first provisional measures against Libya for the murder of civilians, commanding the nation to refrain from violence against civilians and requesting it to report back in fifteen days.

An Iraqi detainee gestures toward U.S. soldiers through bars of his cell at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad on May 17, 2004. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal

On April 28, 2004, photos emerged on “60 Minutes” of U.S. armed service members abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison (also known as the Baghdad Correctional Facility). The prisoners showed service members humiliating prisoners by forcing them to sustain strenuous physical positions, perform simulated sex acts, and wear costumes such as dog heads. Stories of rape and other forms of torture at the prison also emerged, leading many editorial boards and publications to urge then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign. At the time of its exposure, the U.S. government was already investigating the abuse, as documented in the Tagupa Report. The pictures generated a firestorm of international condemnation and complicated U.S. public diplomacy efforts throughout the war in Iraq.

U.S. president George W. Bush (left), U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan (center) and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attend the International Launch of the United Nations Democracy Fund in New York September 14, 2005. (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters)

UN Democracy Fund established

In July 2005, the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, established the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF). The institution has the mission of supporting democratization efforts globally, and is funded through voluntary contributions of thirty-nine UN member states. UNDEF implements its mandate by offering $50,000 to $500,000 grants for two-year long civil society projects.

Specifically, it funds projects targeting one or more of its six focus areas including community development; rule of law and human rights; tools for democratization; women; youth; and media. To date, the UNDEF has supported 330 projects in more than 110 countries. During his 2010 address to the UN General Assembly, President Obama hailed the UNDEF and urged more countries to support its work.

World leaders pose for a group photo at the high-level plenary meeting of the sixtieth session of the General Assembly (2005 World Summit) at the United Nations in New York on September 14, 2005. (Denis Balibouse/Courtesy Reuters)

World leaders unanimously endorse responsibility to protect

In September 2005, the UN General Assembly unanimously agreed to the principle of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) in the UN General Assembly World Summit outcome document. The R2P posits that states have a responsibility to protect their populations against mass atrocities, and that state sovereignty should not prevent the international community from intervening when a state "manifestly fails" to protect its population. Five years earlier, a working group initiated by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had concluded that the international community has an obligation to protect populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and mass atrocities. The summit outcome document echoed this sentiment, proclaiming the organization‘s duty to implement the doctrine in accordance with the founding charter of the United Nations.

Advocates of R2P considered the outcome document a major victory even though it was not legally binding on UN member states. However, some UN member states have criticized R2P as a violation of state sovereignty and an enabler of foreign interference in the internal affairs of states. Many international relations scholars believe the principle was used by the UN Security Council to authorize a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011 through UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

The voting board is displayed during a meeting of the UN General Assembly where formation of the new Human Rights Council was approved at the United Nations headquarters in New York on March 15, 2006. (Chip East/Courtesy Reuters)

UN Human Rights Council replaces UN Commission on Human Rights

In April 2006, the UN General Assembly voted to abolish the widely criticized UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and replace it with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In contrast to its predecessor—whose negligible standards for membership controversially permitted Libya’s accsesion as chair of the UNCHR in 2004—the UNHRC has a built-in tool to assess the human rights records of all UN member states, known as the universal periodic review mechanism. UNHRC members are also elected through a secret ballot procedure conducted by the entire UN General Assembly. With forty-seven members, the UNHRC is slightly smaller than the UNCHR, which had fifty-three.

Human Rights Council Meeting in Geneva voting results are displayed during the Human Rights Council meeting, in Geneva, Switzerland. (Jean-Marc FerrÈ/UN Photo)

UN Human Rights Council passes defamation of religions resolution

On March 30, 2007, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a controversial resolution aimed at stemming the defamation of religions. Specifically, it criticized “the use of the print, audiovisual and electronic media, including the Internet, and any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards Islam or any other religion.” Many Western countries, including the United States, opposed the resolution, claiming that it could endanger free speech rights. The resolution, not legally binding, passed the UNHRC with twenty-four votes in favor, fourteen against, and nine abstentions. Nearly identical resolutions would be passed by the UNHRC in 2008, 2009, and 2010. On March 24, 2011, however, the United States worked with Pakistan, a leading sponsor of previous controversial resolutions condemning the defamation of religion, to produce and unanimously pass a compromise resolution focusing on individual rights with no specific references to Islam. The measure called for "protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, instead of protecting religions from criticism: and promoted "education and awareness-building to address intolerance."

A Bolivian indigenous man kisses his son during the protest march of the Isiboro Secure Territory, in the outskirts of La Paz, on October 18, 2011. (Gaston Brito/Courtesy Reuters).

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

On September 13, 2007, the UN adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Although not legally binding on member states, the declaration expressly calls for prohibiting discrimination against indigenous persons and encourages UN member states to respect the unique institutions, values, and beliefs of indigenous persons. Initially, the declaration was met with significant skepticism from the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—all countries with large populations of indigenous people. By 2010, however, all four countries had reversed their stances and endorsed the declaration.

A table in the execution room at the U.S. federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, taken in April 1995. (Courtesy Reuters/Handout).

UN General Assembly calls for first moratorium on death penalty

On November 1, 2007, the UN General Assembly passed its first resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty with the ultimate goal of completely banning the practice. The resolution was supported by a wide coalition of states, including most U.S. allies. The United States, however, opposed the resolution. The final resolution passed with 104 in favor, 54 against, and 29 abstentions.

Bosnian Muslim men wait for transport to a polling station in Srebrenica, October 2, 2004. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Building on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons in 1975, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force on May 3, 2008, and currently has 110 parties. The convention defines a number of key terms, including disability, discrimination, and the principle of reasonable accommodation of disabled persons. It also delineates certain protections for disabled women and children and guidelines for ensuring the fundamental rights of disabled persons, and establishes a UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities designed to monitor the implementation of the accord. The Optional Protocol on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force on May 3, 2008, permits the UN Committee on the Rights of Disabled Persons to receive complaints and even investigate “grave and systematic” violations of the convention.

Somali people stand outside Barakaat Bank in Mogadishu on November 13, 2001, hoping to receive money sent by relatives abroad (Simon Denyer/AN/AA/Courtesy Reuters).

European Court of Justice challenges UN terrorist sanctions

In the case Kadi and Al Barakaat v. Council of the European Union and EC Commission, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rendered a decision challenging the implementation of targeted sanctions by the UN Security Council 1267 Committee against two individuals, citing national level human rights concerns. Created from UN Security Council Resolution 1267 (UNSCR) in 1999, the UN 1267 Committee, made up of all UN Security Council members, can add individuals and organizations to a consolidated list, thus subjecting them to targeted sanctions, including an asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo.

Yassin Abdullah Kadi from Saudi Arabia and the Al Barakaat International Foundation challenged their status on the Consolidated List, noting that neither had been afforded adequate due process, and that the 1267 Committee did not include a judicial review process. The ECJ agreed with this logic and blocked implementation of the sanctions against the plaintiffs. However, to prevent “seriously and irreversibly” damage to the legitimacy of 1267 Committee procedures, it stayed its decision and called for a reexamination of the due process problem. Litigation concerning the case continues.

The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, speaks at a news conference at United Nations Headquarters on July 17, 2008. (Mike Segar/Courtesy Reuters)

ICC issues warrant for Sudanese president

On March 4, 2009, five years after former secretary of state Colin Powell first described the violenced occurring in Sudan’s Darfur region as "genocide," the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudan president Omar al-Bashir on war crimes and crimes against humanity, the first of its kind against a sitting head of state. In July 2009, an ICC appellate court revisited the decision and issued a second warrant, based on three additional counts of genocide. Al-Bashir rejected all the charges, arguing that the ICC had no jurisdiction in Sudan and was biased against countries in Africa. Despite the charges, al-Bashir continues to act as Sudan‘s head of state and has traveled abroad to represent Sudan‘s government, albeit strictly in countries that do not accept the jurisdiction of the ICC. The ICC investigated and charged al-Bashir based on a referral from UN Security Council Resolution 1593.

Michael H. Posner, U.S. assistant secretary of state, looks on during Iran’s universal periodic review (UPR) of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva on February 15, 2010. (Denis Balibouse/Courtesy Reuters)

United States joins new UN Human Rights Council

Reversing the George W. Bush administration policy of shunning the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) formed in 2006, the Obama administration ran for and won a seat for the United States on the council on May 12, 2009. The voting occurred through a secret ballot election in the UN General Assembly, with the United States running uncontested on a ticket of Western nations including Belgium and Norway. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN under President George W. Bush, criticized the move, saying that the UNHRC was no different from its defunct predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Obama administration has contended, however, that the UNHRC has made progress, in that former alleged rights-abusers who had relatively uncontested bids for seats on the UNHRC—such as Syria and Sudan—were no longer seeking seats on the body.

Thailand’s prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (left) hands to Thai representative Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree (right) a copy of the "Cha-Am Hua Hin Declaration on the Inauguration of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights" on October 23, 2009. (Erik de Castro/Courtesy Reuters)

ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights established

After years of lobbying by nongovernmental organizations and nonmember states, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) inaugurated its first human rights body, the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (ASEAN-ICHR) on October 23, 2009. The overall mission of the ASEAN-ICHR includes a “commitment to pursue forward-looking strategies to strengthen regional cooperation on human rights.” The ASEAN-ICHR includes representatives from all ASEAN member states and makes decisions on a consensus basis.

Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Thorbjoern Jagland looks down at where this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, would have sat, during the ceremony at Oslo City Hall December 10, 2010. (Heiko Junge/Scanpix Norway/Pool/Courtesy Reuters)

Liu Xiaobo wins Nobel Peace Prize

On October 8, 2010, Liu Xiaobo became the first citizen of China to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The award was bestowed in honor of his work toward a peaceful, democratic transition in China. Liu was also the second to be awarded the prize while serving a prison sentence. Liu was most recently imprisoned in China for his work in contributing to Charter 08, a document that calls on China‘s government to introduce greater freedoms in the country and gradually move toward democracy. Published online on December 8, 2008, and signed by more than 350 of China’s leading intellectuals, Charter 08 was modeled after Charter 77, a document issued during the Cold War by political dissidents in Czechoslovakia demanding political reform within the country. The announcement that Liu had won the coveted prize resulted in an immediate outcry from Chinese officials, who continued to label him a convicted criminal.

Filipino gay and lesbian rights activists hold placards while marching on the main street of the University of the Philippines campus in Manila June 28, 2011. (Romeo Ranoco/Courtesy Reuters)

First UN resolution concerning sexual orientation

On June 1, 2011, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed the organization‘s first resolution focusing on sexual orientation and gender identity. Introduced by the delegations from South Africa and Brazil, the resolution was narrowly approved by the UNHRC with twenty-three in favor, nineteen against, and three abstentions. The resolution expresses concern over violence and discrimination directed toward sexual minorities and directs the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate the matter.

Seven months later, in honor of International Human Rights Day, the Obama administration also signaled an increased focus on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the creation of a Global Equality Fund, which will serve as the basis for a public-private partnership to promote the work of LGBT advocates globally.

Residents surf the Internet and play games in a cybercafe built on apartment-styled tombs inside the Manila North Cemetery on October 28, 2011. (John Javellana/Courtesy Reuters)

UN report declares Internet access a human right

On June 3, 2011, a report, completed by the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, categorized Internet access as a human right. Submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, the report criticized the some government‘s practice of arbitrarily limiting Internet access or filtering online content for political purposes. The report also claimed such actions, even in times of political unrest, constitute a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This action coincides with national governments declaring Internet access a right. Finland, the first country to do so, deemed broadband access a right in 2009.

Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga sits in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. (Michael Koore/Courtesy Reuters).

ICC issues first-ever verdict

On March 14, 2012, the International Criminal Court (ICC), issued its first-ever verdict against former Democratic Republic of the Congo warlord, Thomas Lubanga. The ICC convicted Lubanga acting as a co-conspirator in running a child soldier camp as well as facilitating atrocities—including rape and sexual violence—against young girls during a half-decade-long conflict in the region. In announcing the court’s unanimous decision, the presiding judge, Adrian Fulford, declared, "The prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. Thomas Lubanga is guilty of the crimes of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities."

Lubanga’s trial began at the ICC in 2009, and included 204 days of hearings and testimony from 36 witnesses. Other than bringing justice to Lubanga, some human rights experts have argued (PDF) the ruling is important symbolically in terms of the boosting the image of the ICC, and could potentially deter others from committing atrocities.

Former Liberian President Taylor looks down as he waits for the start of a hearing to receive a verdict in a court room of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam.(Peter Dejong/Pool/Courtesy Reuters).

Special Court for Sierra Leone convicts Charles Taylor of war crimes

On April 26, 2012, the hybrid Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, of eleven counts of war crimes, including "acts of terrorism" and "sexual slavery." Overall, the former Liberian leader was found guilty of supplying the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) with arms in exchange for diamonds from neighboring Sierra Leone. The RUF reportedly engaged in numerous atrocities in Sierra Leone, including the enslavement of children, forced amputation, and rape. Taylor denied the charges and claimed he was acting as a peaceful intermediary, and that charges against him were a result of a Western conspiracy. Sentenced to fifty years in prison, Taylor is the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes since the Nuremberg Trials, immediately following World War II. Many hailed the ruling as an important step in national reconciliation, both for Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Men hold up a placard during a Tehreek-e-Insaf rally against drone attacks in Karachi, Pakistan (Athar Hussain/ Courtesy Reuters).

UN special envoy declares U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan illegal

Following a fact-finding mission investigating the death of civilians in drone strikes in Pakistan, the UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, declared that U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan are a violation of international law. Emmerson stated that "the position of the government of Pakistan is quite clear: It does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory and it considers this to be a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity." Emmerson is expected to provide a final report on the legality of the drone strikes in October 2013.

A woman shouts slogans as she protests about violence against women, at the close of the National Meeting of Rural Women, in Brasilia February 21, 2013 (Ueslei Marcelino/ Courtesy Reuters).

UN passes code of conduct addressing violence against women and girls

On March 16, 2013, the United Nations passed a historic code of conduct to combat the use of violence against women and girls. Countries that originally opposed the convention, including certain Muslim nations that viewed the code as a threat to traditional cultural values, agreed to language stipulating that violence against women is not justified by "any custom, tradition or religious consideration.” The final negotiations excluded certain rights, such as the references to gay rights and sexual health rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court building seen in Washington (Molly Riley/ Courtesy Reuters).

U.S. Supreme Court rejects Alien Tort Statute

On Wednesday April 17, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that effectively put an end to the use of a 1789 law called the Alien Tort Statute as an instrument for non-citizens in U.S. courts seeking reparations for human rights violations and atrocities committed by U.S. Businesses on foreign soil. The decision stemmed from the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., in which the statute was used by a group of Nigerian citizens to sue Shell Oil for allegedly aiding the Nigerian government in the torture and execution of activists protesting environmental damages caused by the oil operations in the Ogoni region, between 1992 and 1995. The court’s decision implied that the Alien Tort Statue did not generally apply beyond the borders of the United States, unless Congress decides otherwise.

Syrian refugee children queue as they wait to receive aid from Turkish humanitarian agencies at Bab al-Salam refugee camp in Syria,December 22, 2012 (Ahmed Jadallah/ Courtesy Reuters).

UN launches largest ever aid appeal for Syria

The UN launched a historic aid appeals on June 7, calling for $5 billion, the largest sum in UN history, to help fund basic humanitarian needs like food, shelter, medical care, and schooling. The armed conflict between Syrian government forces and rebel groups, which began in March 2011 as an offshoot of the so-called Arab Spring, has continued unabated.

Turkish riot police stormed an Istanbul park at the heart of two weeks of protest, firing tear gas and water cannon and sending hundreds scurrying into surrounding streets. (Stringer/ Courtesy Reuters).

Turkey clashes in Taksim Square

In response to a peaceful protests against plans to modernize Gezi Park in Istanbul, the Turkish government ordered a major crackdown on protestors, using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the demonstration. During the subsequent fortnight Turkish citizens demonstrated against the government’s heavy-handed response, resulting in anti-government riots which left five dead and at least four thousand injured. Prime Minister Erdogan initially defended his response, calling the protesters extremists, but supporters of the protests, both in Turkey and abroad, see this as the latest in a disturbing trend of authoritarian behavior from the Justice and Development Party (AKP). On June 13, the AKP government finally met with protestors and announced the following morning that building in the park would be put on hold until a court ruled on its legality.

Issue Brief

Scope of the Challenge

Although the concept of human rights is abstract, how it is applied has a direct and enormous impact on daily life worldwide. Millions have suffered crimes against humanity. Millions more toil in bonded labor. In the last decade alone, authoritarian rule has denied civil and political liberties to billions. The idea of human rights has a long history, but only in the past century has the international community sought to galvanize a regime to promote and guard them. Particularly, since the United Nations (UN) was established in 1945, world leaders have cooperated to codify human rights in a universally recognized regime of treaties, institutions, and norms.

An elaborate global system is being developed. Governments are striving to promote human rights domestically and abroad, and are partnering with multilateral institutions to do so. A particularly dynamic and decentralized network of civil-society actors is also involved in the effort.

Together, these players have achieved marked success, though the institutionalization and implementation of different rights is progressing at varying rates. Response to mass atrocities has seen the greatest progress, even if enforcement remains inconsistent. The imperative to provide people with adequate public health care is strongly embedded across the globe, and substantial resources have been devoted to the challenge. The right to freedom from slavery and forced labor has also been integrated into international and national institutions, and has benefited from high-profile pressure to combat forced labor. Finally, the steady accumulation of human-rights-related conventions has encouraged most states to do more to implement binding legislation in their constitutions and statutes.

Significant challenges to promoting human rights norms remain, however. To begin with, the umbrella of human rights is massive. Freedom from slavery and torture, the imperative to prevent gender and racial persecution, and the right to education and health care are only some of the issues asserted as human rights. Furthermore, nations continue to dispute the importance of civil and political versus economic, social, and cultural rights. National governments sometimes resist adhering to international norms they perceive as contradicting local cultural or social values. Western countries—especially the United States—resist international rights cooperation from a concern that it might harm business, infringe on autonomy, or limit freedom of speech. The world struggles to balance democracy’s promise of human rights protection against its historically Western identification.

Moreover, implementing respect for established human rights is problematic. Some of the worst violators have not joined central rights treaties or institutions, undermining the initiatives’ perceived effectiveness. Negligence of international obligations is difficult to penalize. The UN Charter promotes “fundamental freedoms,” for example, but also affirms that nations cannot interfere with domestic matters. The utility of accountability measures, such as sanctions or force, and under what conditions, is also debatable. At times, to secure an end to violent conflict, negotiators choose not to hold human rights violators accountable. Furthermore, developing nations are often incapable of protecting rights within their borders, and the international community needs to bolster their capacity to do so—especially in the wake of the Arab Spring. Finally, questions remain over whether the UN, regional bodies, or other global actors should be the primary forums to advance human rights.

In the long term, strengthening the human rights regime will require a broadened and elevated UN human rights architecture. A steady coalition between the global North and South to harmonize political and economic rights within democratic institutions will also be necessary. In the meantime, regional organizations and nongovernmental organizations must play a larger role from the bottom up, and rising powers must do more to lead. Together, these changes are the world’s best hope for durable and universal enjoyment of human rights.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Overall assessment

Overall assessment: Heightened attention, uneven regional efforts, weak global compliance

The international human rights regime has made several welcome advances—including increased responsiveness in the Muslim world, attention to prevention and accountability for atrocities, and great powers less frequently standing in the way of action, notably at the UN Security Council (UNSC). Yet, despite responses to emergency cases demanding action, such as Sudan and Libya, global governance in ensuring human rights has faltered.

Many experts credit intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) for advances—particularly in civil and political rights. These scholars cite the creation of an assortment of secretariats, administrative support, and expert personnel to institutionalize and implement human rights norms. Overall, the United Nations (UN) remains the central global institution for developing international norms and legitimizing efforts to implement them, but the number of actors involved has grown exponentially.

The primary mechanisms include UNSC action, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), committees of elected experts, various rapporteurs, special representatives, and working groups. War crimes tribunals—the International Criminal Court (ICC), tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and hybrid courts in Sierra Leone and Cambodia—also contribute to the development and enforcement of standards. All seek to raise political will and public consciousness, assess human-rights-related conduct of states and warring parties, and offer technical advice to states on improving human rights.

However, these mechanisms are far from consistent. Generally, when they are effective, they change states’ conduct by publicizing abuses rather than by providing technical advice or applying punitive measures. For example, no global body was capable of forcing the United States to stop its mistreatment of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, but mounting international pressure [PDF] did encourage fundamental U.S. reform of its detention and interrogation policies in 2009. As a result, skeptics also counter that other grassroots movements or organizations hold greater responsibility for rights improvements than global institutions. Furthermore, although progress in condemning and responding to atrocities has been significant, it has been limited in advancing civil and political rights. Many in the international community are reassessing economic, social, and cultural rights as IGOs increasingly link human rights to business practices and public health. Elsewhere, attention to the rights of women, minorities, and persecuted ethnic groups has steadily increased.

Of all rights-centered UN bodies, the UN Human Rights Council receives the most attention. In its former incarnation as the Commission on Human Rights, it developed a reputation for allowing the participation—and even leadership—of notorious human rights abusers, undermining its legitimacy. Reconstituted as the UNHRC in 2006, the new forty-seven-member body has a higher threshold for membership as well as a universal periodic review (UPR) process, which evaluates the human rights records of states, including those on the council. Generally, the UPR has been welcomed as encouraging accountability and highlighting progress, and states have largely cooperated. However, Israel became the first state to withdraw from the review panel, breaking the established precedent of collaboration and cooperation. This follows a pattern of disproportionate focus on Israel—more than half of resolutions passed since 2006 have focused on Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories—while ignoring major abuses in other states.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) has more power to take action against human rights abusers. It can impose sanctions, mandate peacekeeping operations, and authorize use of force in extreme cases. Furthermore, UNSC deliberations are higher profile than UNHRC meetings and thus substantially elevate international attention to and pressure on rights violators. The UNSC deliberates on countries’ abuses when they threaten international peace and security—but only when UNSC politics permit it. The five permanent UNSC members can all veto resolutions. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States tend to be the most vocal advocates for promoting human rights, though they routinely subordinate such concerns to strategic interests. China and Russia, however, often veto human rights interventions. Recently, major powers elected to the UNSC have been ambivalent on human rights, and none of the three seeking permanent membership (Germany, Brazil, and India) voted to authorize the mission in Libya.

Increasingly, the locus of activity on human rights is moving to the regional level, but at markedly different paces from place to place. Regional organizations and powers contribute to advancing human rights protections in their neighborhoods by bolstering norms, providing mechanisms for peer review, and helping countries codify human rights stipulations within domestic institutions. Regional organizations are often considered the first lines of defense, and better able to address rights issues unique to a given area. This principle is explicitly mentioned in the UN Charter, which calls on member states to “make every effort to achieve pacific settlement of local disputes through such regional arrangements or by such regional agencies” before approaching the UNSC.

Major regional organizations in the Western Hemisphere, Europe, and Africa—such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union (EU), and the African Union (AU)—have integrated human rights into their mandate and established courts to which citizens can appeal if a nation violates their rights. This has led to important rulings on slavery in Niger and spousal abuse in Brazil, for example, but corruption continues to hamper implementation throughout Latin America and Africa, and a dearth of leadership in African nations has slowed institutionalization.

Meanwhile, organizations in the Middle East and Asia, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, focus primarily on economic cooperation and have historically made scant progress on human rights. The Arab League, however, broke with its precedent of disengagement by backing UN action against Libya and sanctioning Syria, and may prove more committed to protecting human rights in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Civil society efforts have achieved the most striking success in human rights, though they often interact with international institutions and many national governments. Nongovernmental (NGOs) provide valuable data and supervision, which can assist both states and international organizations. NGOs also largely rely on international organizations for funding, administrative support, and expert assistance. Indeed, more than 3,000 NGOs have been named as official consultants to the UN Economic and Social Council alone, and many more contribute in more abstract ways. Domestic NGOs understand needs on the ground far better than their international counterparts. That international NGOs are beginning to recognize this is clear in two recent developments. The first is financier-philanthropist George Soros’s $100 million donation to Human Rights Watch to develop field offices staffed by locals, which enabled the organization to increase its annual operating budget to $80 million. Second, the number of capacity-building partnerships between Western-based NGOs and NGOs indigenous to a country is increasing. That said, NGOs have to date been more successful in advocacy—from achieving passage of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention to calling attention to governments’ atrocities against their own citizens. Yet NGOs devoted to implementing human rights compliance have been catching up—on issues from democratic transitions to gender empowerment to protecting migrants.

Norm and treaty creation

Norm and treaty creation: prodigious but overemphasized

The greatest strength of the global governance architecture has been creating norms. Myriad treaties, agreements, and statements have enshrined human rights on the international community’s agenda, and some regional organizations have followed suit. These agreements lack binding clauses to ensure that action matches rhetoric, however, and many important violators have not signed on. In addition, states often attach qualifiers to their signatures that dilute their commitments.

The array of treaties establishing standards for human rights commitments is broad—from political and civil liberties to economic, social, and cultural rights to racial discrimination to the rights of women, children, migrant workers, and more recently the disabled. Other global efforts have focused on areas such as labor rights and human trafficking. Regional organizations, most notably the Council of Europe and the Organization of American States, have also promulgated related instruments, although less uniformly. In addition, member states have articulated declarations and resolutions establishing human rights standards, and increasingly so in economic affairs. The United Nations Human Rights Council, in a departure from the premise that states are to be held accountable for human rights conduct, in 2011 even passed formal guidelines for related business responsibilities [PDF].

On the other hand, states are under are no binding obligation to observe or implement rights resolutions unless passed—without a veto—through the UN Security Council or one of the few regional bodies with binding authority over member states. Similarly, although the proliferation of treaties, conventions, and protocols over the past fifty years implies significant advances in human rights norms, the true impact of these measures is questionable.

First, many of the conventions, such as the Rome Statute or the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families, have not been ratified by central players, such as the United States. Second, although calls for enhanced human rights norms have increased, consensus over implementation and compliance has not kept pace. In particular, whereas the global North has largely focused on advancing civil and political rights, the global South has tended to defend economic, social, and cultural rights. Third, even if a rights document is ratified, states often use reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs) to evade obligations, especially those of legally binding documents. They do so to avoid negative press or the potential for imbroglios from even moderately intrusive monitoring mechanisms.

Saudi Arabia is an apt example. The country has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but one RUD states that the convention is not applicable when it conflicts with sharia law, which allows Riyadh to continue denying basic rights to women. Similarly, many have argued that the United States has undermined its already limited commitments on human rights by invoking complex RUDs. For example, Washington ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, but with the qualifier that it would not trump U.S. constitutional protection for freedom of speech, and therefore not require banning hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

The international community thus remains at serious risk of overemphasizing the creation of international norms. For these to be effectively implemented, the language in international treaties must be transplanted directly into domestic legal structures, but this process is often quite slow. Furthermore, rather than pursuing broader protections, the international community should at times focus on securing transparency guarantees from governments and assurance that nongovernmental organizations and UN rapporteurs can freely monitor human rights within national borders. Implementation of existing rights treaties and agreements might have more concrete effect than expanded protection on paper.

Rights monitoring

Rights monitoring: proliferating experts, increasing peer-based scrutiny

Monitoring is imperative to matching rhetoric with action. Over the years, human rights monitoring has matured and developed considerably, though serious challenges remain, such as ensuring freedom from torture for suspected terrorists, and uniformly protecting and promoting human rights despite the biases of rights organizations or officials entrusted with doing so.

The original United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its successor Human Rights Council (UNHRC) both authorized a wide array of special procedures to monitor human rights protection in functional areas and particular countries. Since the UNHRC was established in 2006, country-specific mandates have decreased, and functional monitors addressing economic and social rather than political and civil liberties have increased.

In addition, each UN human rights treaty has an elected body of experts to which state parties must report at regular intervals on implementation. For instance, the Human Rights Committee (not to be confused with the Council) is charged with receiving reports about the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and making nonbinding "concluding observations" about states’ overall compliance. The UN Convention Against Torture monitoring mechanism, the Committee Against Torture, is similar but can also send representatives to inspect areas where evidence of "systematic torture" exists. Very few parties to the convention (e.g., China, Syria, and Israel) have exercised the "opt-out" provision to avoid being subject to these inspections. (The United States has not opted out). The committee has exercised the mechanism eight times since 1990. In its first five years, a Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture has exercised the power to make on-the-ground inquiries sixteen times under the convention’s First Optional Protocol, applicable only to its sixty-one parties.

Some observers [PDF] believe that this array of special procedures and treaty bodies, bolstered by the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of all member states, indicates a robust capacity to monitor human rights globally. This could, in turn, empower nongovernmental organizations to raise information and engage governments in countries where they operate. Others question the strength of the system, noting that the quality and personal biases of experts vary dramatically and that as much time is spent in the UPR on liberal states as on systematic rights abusers, and that non-Western states “pull their punches” in questioning peers.

Various regional bodies also monitor implementation of human rights. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Council of Europe mechanisms are robust. The inter-American system is highly institutionalized but disinclined to address suspension of constitutional provisions by democratically elected leaders. The African Union has a promising foundation in its peer review mechanism, but it is largely unrealized in the human rights area. Other regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council, have no monitoring to speak of, despite dramatic cases of abuses and public demand for better protections in their regions.


Capacity building: vital but underemphasized

Capacity building—especially for human rights—is often expensive and daunting, viewed with suspicion, and the success of assistance is notoriously hard to measure. In many cases, national governments have signed international commitments to promote and protect human rights, and earnestly wish to implement them, but are incapable of doing so. For example, many experts have noted that Libya may require an entirely new judicial system, following the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime. On the other hand, some states refuse assistance from nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) and international organizations (IGOs), suspecting that it might interfere with domestic affairs. On balance, it also remains far easier, and less costly, for the international community to condemn, expose, or shame human rights abusers rather than provide material aid for human rights capacity building.

The international community has developed various ways to offer technical assistance. Most notable is the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), established in 1993. In addition to providing an institutionalized moral voice, OHCHR offers technical assistance to states through an array of field offices—for example, by providing training to civilian law enforcement and judicial officials through its country office in Uganda, strengthening the Cambodian legal and institutional framework for human rights, and assisting Mexico with development of a National Program on Human Rights. Such work is undercut, however, by member states’ propensity to prefer unilateral support for capacity building, to favor naming and shaming over capacity building, or to oppose human rights capacity building as either a threat to sovereignty or tantamount to neocolonialism.

Regional organizations such as the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Council of Europe, Organization of American States (OAS), European Union, and to some extent the African Union, may be more effective than the United Nations in sharing best practices and providing capacity-building advice to states. Often capacity building entails training human rights protectors and defenders, but it may also include legal framework building or addressing countries’ specific capacity deficits. The OSCE, for instance, collaborates with member states on election monitoring and offers training and education [PDF] to human rights defenders through its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

Human rights capacity building also occurs on a bilateral basis. Indeed, some developed states prefer providing bilateral assistance to working with IGOs and multilateral institutions because resources can be better monitored and projects more carefully tailored to support donor state interests. For instance, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which laid the basis for the creation of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), calls for the use of development assistance to promote economic and civil rights. Since its inception, USAID has provided billions of dollars to support good governance, transparency building, and civil society projects worldwide. It recently gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Liberia to train judges, promote the rule of the law, and increase government transparency.

Meanwhile, other multilateral institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization also support human rights promotion, but tend to do so more indirectly, through poverty alleviation and community enhancement schemes. Together, though, these institutions face new constraints as the international community continues to grapple with the global financial crisis and unprecedented budget deficits. 

NGOs, while indispensable actors in terms of implementing ground-level capacity building, mostly operate at the pleasure of national governments, and have little recourse if asked to cease operations or even leave a state entirely. Suspicious of NGO activity, some governments have attempted to pass laws limiting the activity of NGOs or requiring them to receive prior approval before engaging in capacity-building efforts. Ongoing controversy in Cambodia over proposed government regulation of NGOs epitomizes this problem. Furthermore, the March 2009 decision of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, to order thirteen international NGOS to leave Sudan—in the aftermath of his indictment by the International Criminal Court—demonstrates that NGOs may be perceived as easy targets by governments seeking to gain political or diplomatic leverage when pressed on their human rights records.

As a whole, successful capacity building forms the core of long-term efforts to improve human rights in countries. Regardless, human rights capacity building is often underemphasized both in states with the poorest of human rights as well as among countries or intergovernmental organizations that are most in a position to help. While NGOs are crucial contributors to capacity-building efforts, they cannot—and should not—shoulder the entire burden. Broad, crosscutting partnerships are essential for such efforts to enjoy success and produce sustainable human rights reform.

Response to atrocities

Response to atrocities: significant institutionalization, selective action

Atrocities of all sorts—whether war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing—have been a major focus in the international community over the last two decades. A number of regional and country-specific courts, as well as the International Criminal Court (ICC), provide potential models for ending impunity. However, these courts have unevenly prosecuted violators of human rights, and have been criticized for focusing on some abuses or regions while ignoring others.

In the aftermath of the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s, where UN peacekeepers on the ground failed to prevent mass killing and sexual violence, efforts to establish preventive and responsive norms to atrocities accelerated. To hold perpetrators accountable, the Rome Statute established the ICC as the standing tribunal for atrocities. The ICC was largely considered an alternative to ad hoc tribunals like those for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which were criticized for proceeding too slowly and for requiring redundant and complex institution building. The ICC is the result of UN efforts to evaluate the prospects for an international court to address crimes like genocide as early as 1948.

The United States was at best ambivalent about the ICC, given concerns that its own military actions would be subject to accusations. President Clinton signed the Rome Statute but recommended against ratification. The George W. Bush administration informed the UN secretary-general that the United States no longer considered itself a signatory, and set about negotiating (after a congressional mandate threatening to cut aid to states that refused to sign such agreements) to avoid having its troops handed over to the court. Ultimately, however, that administration tacitly cooperated on an ICC case against Sudan for atrocities in Darfur. The Obama administration reengaged as an active observer at the Conference of the Rome Statute Parties, despite its wariness over ICC attempts to define the crime of aggression. The ICC’s first prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, vigorously pursued the first indictment of a sitting head of state, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, but others have suggested that ICC proceedings have occurred no more quickly than those of ad hoc tribunals and remain too focused on pursuing cases in Africa.

As for preventive action, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan championed stronger norms for intervention against ongoing atrocities. In the wake of the Kosovo crisis, Annan cited the need for clarifying when international intervention should legally be used to prevent atrocities in states. In response, the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty promoted the concept of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) in 2000 and 2001. This principle sought to reframe the debate over humanitarian intervention in terms of state sovereignty. Specifically, it placed the primary responsibility on states to protect their own citizens. When states failed, responsibility would fall to the international community. Annan’s In Larger Freedom report picked up on this concept, and R2P informed two paragraphs in the Outcome Document of 2005 UN World Summit. The latter also included an emphasis on the importance of capacity-building assistance to help states meet their R2P obligations. In the UN Security Council (UNSC), the R2P doctrine has been invoked repeatedly—first generically affirmed, then raised in semi-germane cases in 2008 (in Myanmar after a cyclone and in Kenya during post-election violence), and then conclusively in 2011 (UNSC Resolution 1973 on Libya).

Sudan has also served as a bellwether for international for the international community’s capacity to respond to instances of atrocities. In 2004, in response to the depredations of government-backed janjaweed forces against the inhabitants of Darfur, the United States issued a legal determination that genocide had been committed. Rape of women venturing outside camps for the internally displaced, however, continued long after the UN became involved. A combined UN and African Union peacekeeping force was also established to help mitigate the violence. In 2009, the ICC indicted Bashir, but had neither the means to apprehend him nor the leverage to facilitate his capture.

In short, the international community has taken its greatest step by redefining sovereignty as answerable to legal international intervention should a state fail to shield its citizens from atrocities, or worse yet, sponsor them. However, state practice has not matched these norms, and it remains to be seen whether consensus about Libya was sui generis. The escalating conflict in Syria, in which over sixty thousand have been killed since March 2011, underscores the fact that, in reality, political concerns of the P5 often trump the doctrine of R2P.

Political and civil rights

Political and civil rights: disproportionately institutionalized, backlash on free expression and association

Treaties that define political and civil liberties are widely ratified, but many countries have not signed on to enforcement protocols, and many continue to violate the rights of their citizens regardless of treaties. In addition, the right of people to choose their leaders and freedom of the press, religion, and association has backslid in recent years. At the same time, however, people are increasingly demanding rights and attempting to bypass repression of illiberal regimes. New technology (such as cell phones, social media, and satellite television) is also providing unprecedented opportunities to publicize abuse and organize protests, though repressive regimes are closely following with practices to censor new technology.

States resisting the spread of political and civil liberties have been challenged more by civil society than by other states or by intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). Using information and communications technology, and with the support of global nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and occasionally the private sector, civil society has taken their demands to a new level. China’s effort to control dissent, for example, has been greatly challenged by Uighur dissenters in Xinjiang, Falun Gong groups, and the decision by Google to refuse to implement comprehensive censorship in China. However, international pressure remains relevant. For example, the Obama administration’s recent statement that censorship practices in China may violate World Trade Organization rules has increased pressure on China to reform.

In the United Nations, the number of member states, organs, and generic mandates related to freedom of expression and association have increased. For instance, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2007 calling for the end of capital punishment. In September 2010, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted another resolution, creating a special rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. This occurred in the wake of a multiyear backlash [PDF] against domestic NGOs and their international philanthropic and civil society backers in a series of autocracies.

Nonetheless, analysis has documented a five-year backslide in levels of democratic governance and other civil political liberties worldwide. Moreover, ratifications of the First and Second Protocols of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights remain low. The latter, which attempts to ban the death penalty, has only seventy-three parties. Another more recent accord, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, came into force in 2010, but has not been ratified by states most commonly charged with executing such disappearances, including Russia and China.

Attacks on journalists have also increased, especially as the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East and North Africa. And even as individuals and civic organizations have used social media and other online tools to exchange ideas and press their cause, authoritarian governments have taken advantage of the same technology to halt or reverse gains in freedom of expression.

In recent years, national debates about the relationship between terrorism and Islam have also increased the number of measures in IGO bodies like the United Nations and UNHRC on religious expression. Muslim-majority states have proposed resolutions to stem the “defamation” of religion. Such measures, though, were in many instances perceived by Western powers and rights groups as licenses to permit states to punish cases of so-called religious blasphemy, and had the potential to dramatically limit freedom of speech. During the spring of 2011, the UNHRC shifted from the annual tradition of passing the controversial defamation of religion resolutions to adopt a more authentically robust freedom of religion formula. The new balance, focusing on religious tolerance, was largely due to a compromise the United States struck with the Organization of the Islamic Conference, since renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

As a whole, although a large number of states continue to disregard or even retard the protection of political and civil liberties, expanding efforts on the ground and in multilateral bodies may prove most significant in the long term.

Economic rights and business responsibilities

Economic rights and business responsibilities: increased corporate focus and engagement

A long-standing debate between the global North and global South has been over whether to prioritize negative obligations of states to avoid restricting political and civil liberties or positive obligations to deliver economic and social benefits. Indicators, however, show a subtle yet important shift in the last ten of the forty-year debate.

Until the end of the twentieth century, international law frameworks placed human rights obligations on the shoulders of states. Not least through former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s role as an ideas entrepreneur, notions of the obligation of businesses on human rights have blossomed. First, in 2000, Annan and his Harvard-based scholar-adviser John Ruggie crafted the UN Global Compact, which enumerates voluntary principles for business related to human rights and environmental stewardship. The UN then created a mandate for a special representative of the secretary-general to assess state, business, and civil-society stakeholders on business conduct and human rights. In July 2011, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted guidelines [PDF] that delineate state obligations to protect human rights, business obligations to respect them, and a joint role to provide remedies to people robbed of them. These successes do not come without challenges, however. Ruggie, who has been at the forefront [PDF] of business and human rights, completed his term as special representative in mid-2011, raising the prospect that UN efforts may stall in his absence. Further, although the UN Security Council’s adoption of the Global Compact guidelines is significant, implementation will be a difficult next step. Additionally, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and its counterpart, the International Organization of Employers, have jointly engaged businesses on best practices on human rights.

Nevertheless, businesses’ decisions to uphold human rights standards remain largely voluntary and thus subject to market—rather than moral—forces. Even when businesses make commitments to corporate responsibility programs, no actor exists to enforce such commitments. Civil society can play a critical role in mitigating these challenges, however, by publicizing corporate human rights abuses and working directly [PDF] with businesses on corporate responsibility. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, the Institute for Human Rights and Business, the International Federation for Human Rights, Global Witness, and the International League for Human Rights exemplify these efforts. Additionally, even where businesses act in violation of domestic laws or international conventions protecting human rights, limited domestic law enforcement capabilities undermine the force of accountability standards. 

The international community’s efforts to address economic and social rights have advanced. Some measures evidence a redefinition of human rights, such as the mandate from the UNHRC on toxic waste. Some entail setting ambitious norms, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, negotiated during the George W. Bush administration and signed by the Obama administration (although Congress failed to ratify the convention in December 2012). Most important have been efforts to address economic and social rights with tangible programming. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria is a landmark achievement for bridging health, economic, and discriminatory ills; for mobilizing significant resources beyond regular assessed budgets of the UN; and for involving an array of UN, private sector, philanthropic, and civil society actors in a concerted partnership. It is worth noting that the global North (and its greatest skeptic on economic and social rights, the United States) have championed this effort, supplementing it heavily through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Child labor, forced labor, human trafficking, and contemporary slavery have also become a focus of global governance efforts since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Such abridgments of freedom and autonomy signal a tragic combination of economic desperation, weak rule of law, and discrimination. The ILO’s work to address forced labor and the most acute forms of child labor through conventions and preventive programs has now been supplemented by other efforts. New energy has been directed to mitigating the most coercive of labor practices as a result of the near simultaneous enactment of the Palermo Protocol to the UN Crime Convention on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) and the U.S. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000.

The UNHRC has also authorized special rapporteurs on both human trafficking and contemporary slavery. States, intergovernmental organizations, and NGOs have developed partnerships to address child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking. Businesses are also joining global governance efforts, moving from sector-specific partnerships (such as the travel and hospitality sector on child sex trafficking and chocolate companies on child labor in West Africa) to cross-sectoral ones (such as the Athens Ethical Principles [PDF] and emerging thought-leader coalitions).

Women’s and children’s rights

Women’s and children’s rights: institutional progress but holdouts on implementation

The rights of women have advanced incrementally. The United Nations (UN) system has moved beyond creating norms, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child to more assertive leadership and calls for implementation efforts among national governments. However, despite marked success on various fronts, the UN estimates that women continue to make up less than 10 percent of world leaders and less than one-fifth of parliamentarians. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the Arab Spring will help or hinder the cause of gender equality. Efforts to enhance the economic and social wellbeing of women and children have also improved, but remain at risk as a result of tightened national and international aid budgets.

Arguably, the decision of the UN Development Program to commission reports [PDF] by Arab experts to link gender inequality and reduced development in the Arab world, published in 2005, was an important step forward. The formation of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), amalgamating four existing agencies, received an additional boost when Chile’s Michelle Bachelet was appointed its first leader. The remaining question is whether the consolidation of women’s rights functions will mainstream or silo them. Around the world, more women have become involved in political participation—from the first woman elected head of state in Africa to the franchise in Gulf States.

The essential role of women in peace and consensus building has moved from statements like UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, which recognized that women are not adequately consulted and integrated into peace processes, to reality. In December 2011, for example, the United States joined  thirty-two other countries in publishing a National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security [PDF] designed to integrate governmental efforts to implement UNSCR 1325. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s leadership in postconflict Liberia and the July 2010 establishment of UN Women provide further evidence of the international community’s improving recognition of the indispensable role of women in postconflict situations.

Moreover, attention to the acute problem of violence against women has advanced, even if it has been significantly curtailed in practice. In 1998, The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), along with the Rome Statute, established the precedent that targeted rape is a crime against humanity, though the practice has continued largely unabated in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, and Zimbabwe.

The degree to which prostitution of girls and sex trafficking of women is an act of violence is beginning to be better understood around the world. Despite several conventions addressing the issue of human trafficking, and anti-trafficking laws in many countries, it remains a nearly $32 billion industry. While exact statistics are difficult to obtain, the UN estimates that between seven hundred thousand and two million women are trafficked annually. Over the past decade, the United States and the United Nations have devoted greater resources to monitoring and prosecuting trafficking, as with the UN Office of Drugs and Crime’s human trafficking case law database and the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. Additionally, in 2010, the UN established a trust fund to assist victims of human trafficking and the UN General Assembly adopted a global plan of action to combat trafficking.

Girls are substantially less likely to receive basic education, especially in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, the World Bank reports that this situation is unlikely to change through economic development alone. While girl’s education has received more attention in recent years, much work remains. Gender parity in primary and secondary education was among the Millennium Development Goals originally targeted for achievement by 2005. In support of this goal and its original 2005 deadline, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched the 25 by 2005 initiative, which brought greater awareness to girls’ educational needs. However, the international community failed to reach the 2005 target—60 percent of countries still lack gender parity in education—and it remains on the list of Millennium Development Goals targeted for 2015. Nevertheless, NGOs like the public-private Education for All-Fast Track Initiative [PDF] have successfully implemented country-specific approaches.

Awareness and official standards for the rights of children have also expanded, but implementation has lagged. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and its two optional protocols, on child soldiers and on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, have set crucial norms. Partnerships of states, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector have begun to address the subjects of these two protocols in particular. International organizations have heightened focus on postconflict rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers in various regions, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Sri Lanka. NGOs, media, and authors have raised international public awareness, and increasingly using child soldiers is seen as human trafficking. As for child prostitution, diverse groups such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Labor Organization, the UN Interagency Program on Human Trafficking , the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the secular End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, the faith-based World Vision, and the Body Shop Corporation have forged partnerships to identify and assist victims. However, the problem of prostituted children being treated by local authorities as disposable or criminal, rather than as victims, persists globally, even in major democracies like the United States, Japan, and India.

In large segments of the developing world, children are seen as breadwinning assets, sometimes abandoned to degrading exploitation [PDF] when they are too much of a burden to families. Among those capable of responding to this problem, UNICEF is arguably the best run, most respected, and most able to secure donations. It addresses acute protection needs of children in humanitarian crisis zones, as well as more general health, education, and other basic needs. In a related effort, the World Health Organization has encouraged linking immunizations to human rights as a part of its Decade of Vaccines [PDF] program, which spans 2011 to 2020, though financial support will likely be constrained as the word continues in an economic downturn.

Other group rights: heightened focus, selective bias

Other group rights: heightened focus, selective bias

Dedicated efforts to address the rights of particular groups have advanced for some, but stalled for others. Racism and other forms of xenophobia have been a major focus. Organization of American States (OAS) members have been negotiating over an antiracism convention proposed by Brazil since 2005, to follow in the footsteps of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism and monitoring regime. The UN process, despite the 1991 repeal of UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 (classifying Zionism as a form of racism), has been sidetracked by the issue of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territories. The 2001 UN World Conference against Racism in Durban came close to declaring Israel to be racist, and follow-on efforts, such as at the 2009 Review Conference, had a similarly skewed focus. In practice, however, certain great exemplars of antiracism have transcended, from South Africa’s reconciliation under Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama’s election in a nation in which segregation was widely institutionalized a half century earlier. Sadly, many varied instances of racism and xenophobia remain, from anti-Semitic violence in Europe to anti-white land seizure policies in Zimbabwe.

Indigenous peoples have been the subject of elaborate, extended dialogue and expert monitoring in the UN and inter-American system of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), but remain subject to discrimination. After establishing the Convention on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in 1989, the UN General Assembly voted to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Although Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States initially opposed the declaration, they ultimately voted in favor. Other ethnic minorities are the targets of discrimination (such as Dalits, who make up the vast majority of the estimated [PDF] forty million bonded laborers in India despite a 1976 law against the practice) or state-led political and cultural repression (such as Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims in ostensibly autonomous territories of China). Ethnic rights abuses remain one of the major sources or pretexts for armed conflict. 

Sexual minorities have begun to gather increased attention in IGO forums, in resolutions, and in national practice. Focus has ranged from being subject to violence to freedom from discrimination. Brazil has spearheaded confronting rights abridgments in the UN and OAS, as it did on homophobia. African and Middle Eastern states and the Vatican have led opposition to sexual minority rights in the United Nations. Western and Latin American states have increasingly swung toward supporting these rights, which culminated in the UN Human Rights Council passing the first UN resolution on the protection of sexual minorities in June 2011.

In short, an increasing number of groups have been recognized by multilateral bodies, states, and publics as deserving equal access to justice. Implementation efforts are spottier. Second, cultural legacies of prejudice may persist as more and more groups lobby for rights.

U.S. and International Human Rights Policy Questions


The United States and the international community face numerous and increasingly serious questions on evaluating, reforming, and strengthening the global human rights regime. While the U.S. government views human rights promotion as an important foreign policy goal, enactment is rarely clear cut; rather, it is fraught with ethical quandaries and competing strategic priorities. In shaping a human rights policy for the twenty-first century, the United States must carefully select tactics and partners that are consistent with U.S. interests and values, protect human rights abuse victims, and maximize available resources.

Effectiveness of coercive strategies

Should the United States use coercive approaches, such as military force and economic sanctions, to address human rights issues?

Yes: Proponents argue that coercive approaches to promoting and protecting human rights, such as economic sanctions and military force, yield the most tangible results during human rights crises. For example, the imposition of a no-fly zone in Iraq from 1991 to 2001 and the use of  North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) airpower in 1999 deterred government ethnic cleansing. More recently, in 2011, military force prevented Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi from massacring civilians. Advocates also note that military force is sometimes the only option to prevent mass atrocities, and argue that the Rwandan genocide could have been avoided had nations used military force. Merely naming and shaming is often criticized as a paper tiger, and rights violators can simply ignore UN Human Rights Council resolutions—which are not legally binding—or UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that do not threaten military force. Moreover, during UNSC negotiations, resolutions are often severely watered down.

Advocates add that costs are drastically reduced when alliances cooperate in humanitarian interventions. For example, the multilateral Kuwaiti mission to repel Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1990 ultimately cost the United States relatively little. Similarly, targeted sanctions can pressure high-level government violators of human rights to cease egregious acts and deter others from engaging in them. The multilateral sanctions regime against the South African government under apartheid succeeded in toppling the racist Rhodesian regime, for example.

No: Opponents of using force to counter human rights abuses cite three problems. First, coercive measures are rarely effective. Military strikes can be neutralized if leaders go into hiding. Sanctioned regimes often cultivate alternate trading partners, conduct business on the black market, and rally public support against the sanctioning nation or nations. Some contend that sanctions impoverish civilians but do not harm the elite leadership, and therefore do not inspire changes in behavior. Second, the United States does not have the resources to prevent human rights abuses around the world. Although international institutions such as NATO and the UNSC increase the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions, the United States usually provides the majority of funds and military assets. For example, while relatively cheap for the United States, the 2011 multilateral air campaign in Libya cost the U.S. government between $60 and $80 million per month. Third, coercive measures often kill civilians or damage critical government infrastructure. For instance, although the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Kosovo achieved its central objective of halting ethnic cleansing of minority Albanians, an estimated five hundred Yugoslav civilians were killed during allied bombing runs. Similarly, although figures vary, blanket economic sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s took an extremely heavy toll on Iraqi society. Some figures, for example, estimate the total number of Iraqi civilian deaths as a result of sanctions to be in the hundreds of thousands.

No: Opponents of using force to counter human rights abuses cite three problems. First, coercive measures are rarely effective. Military strikes can be neutralized if leaders go into hiding. Sanctioned regimes often cultivate alternate trading partners, conduct business on the black market, and rally public support against the sanctioning nation or nations. Some contend that sanctions impoverish civilians but do not harm the elite leadership, and therefore do not inspire changes in behavior. Second, the United States does not have the resources to prevent human rights abuses around the world. Although international institutions such as NATO and the UNSC increase the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions, the United States usually provides the majority of funds and military assets. For example, while relatively cheap for the United States, the 2011 multilateral air campaign in Libya cost the U.S. government between $60 and $80 million per month. Third, coercive measures often kill civilians or damage critical government infrastructure. For instance, although the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Kosovo achieved its central objective of halting ethnic cleansing of minority Albanians, an estimated five hundred Yugoslav civilians were killed during allied bombing runs. Similarly, although figures vary, blanket economic sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s took an extremely heavy toll on Iraqi society. Some figures, for example, estimate the total number of Iraqi civilian deaths as a result of sanctions to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Instead, opponents of force argue that publicly condemning human rights abusers is the fastest and least costly path to protecting human rights. In many instances, criticizing a government in high-profile forums can pressure a regime to change its behavior. Many nongovernmental organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others, rely on naming and shaming to elicit policy change. Building global consensus has had marked success, but is often coupled with other actions. In May 2011, for example, after strident international criticism, the Ugandan parliament delayed voting on a bill that would have mandated harsh prison sentences and capital punishment for gays and lesbians in the country.

Reform global rights bodies?

Should the United States prioritize reform of international human rights bodies?

Yes: Advocates of devoting more U.S. capital to institutional change in the United Nations (UN) and regional intergovernmental organizations believe that both can advance human rights interests even if imperfect. Since the Obama administration decided to join the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) rather than shun it, for example, the UNHRC has passed a groundbreaking resolution concerning sexual orientation, voted in favor of suspending a rights abuser—Libya—from its halls, and even dissuaded known human rights violators—such as Syria—from running for a seat on the UNHRC. On a regional basis, the United States and its allies also benefited from the Arab League’s decision to condemn Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, call for a no-fly zone over Libya in April 2011 as well as the body’s decision to condemn Syria’s human rights violations in November 2011. Pursuing additional reform also permits the United States to gain multilateral support and to mitigate the costs of acting alone or sitting on the sidelines during rights crises. Acting on a more unilateral basis not only risks polarizing potential partners, but also raises costs considerably.

No: Although restructuring UN and regional institutions may seem excellent in theory, in practice it is more complex and may actually be counterproductive in terms of human rights. Achieving major reforms within the UNHRC may be particularly difficult given that the body itself is not even a decade old. Some argue that the United States risks losing gains made in creating the UNHRC by reopening the debate within the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council. Reform on human rights—such as eliminating or qualifying the UN Security Council veto in cases of mass atrocities—is even less probable given the interests of veto-wielding states such as Russia and China. Others argue that rather than demanding reform of international bodies, the United States should forego cooperation with them. Instead the United States should optimize the use of scarce resources by promoting fewer but more targeted reforms most suited to its foreign policy interests.

Global versus regional institutions

Should the United States use global rather than regional institutions to advance human rights?

Yes: Many believe the United States should prioritize global intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and institutions like the United Nations (UN) and the Group of Twenty rather than regional organizations such as the Organization of American States, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), or African Union (AU) for human rights advocacy for three reasons. First, global organizations have inherently greater authority to set norms than their regional counterparts. Global IGOs better represent the international community and likely carry more legitimacy and normative influence. Second, the United States has a higher chance of accomplishing its objectives in global IGO forums, such as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), of which it is a member and source of funding. The Obama administration has championed this approach by reversing the Bush administration policy of shunning the UNHRC and instead trying to improve the body from within. A final problem may be the lack of developed regional organizations focusing on human right issues.

Both the UN and other regional institutions also include member states whose leaders are not elected, and with which the United States either does not have normal diplomatic relations or fundamentally disagrees on human rights policy. Other regional organizations—such as the Organization for Islamic Cooperation’s Independent Permanent Commission on Human Rights, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Human Rights Commission—are still very young and have yet to develop legitimacy and capacity. Simply throwing aid or expertise at such bodies is unlikely to yield positive, sustainable reform, and the United States must therefore engage with these nations in global bodies, without stalling action by demanding reform.

No: Others say the United States should focus more on nascent regional human rights organizations. Although global IGOs and institutions can certainly be valuable partners, regional organizations are the closest on the ground and the most capable of handling situations based on the consensus of neighboring states. Institutions like the European Union, Council of Europe, and OSCE have advanced human rights in transitional states seeking to be members of the institutions in good standing. The inter-American system of IGOs has highly developed human rights mechanisms. The AU has also developed good governance and a promising peer review mechanism. Emerging regional organizations, especially those that focus on human rights, such as the African Human Rights Commission, take better advantage of the resources the United States and other like-minded partners provide. Such prioritizing of aid recipients is increasingly critical as the budgets of the United States and major European partners contract. For example, opportunities for the United States and other European countries to work to bolster the peacekeeping capacity of the AU, which could in turn alleviate the ongoing crisis in Somalia, are numerous. Human rights action in global IGOs and institutions commonly falls prey to regional and North-South bloc politics, procedural logjams, and the need to compromise among far too many competing interests—in effect rendering a final outcome document toothless. In contrast, working through regional organizations involves fewer actors and may work best in terms of ensuring legitimacy and building consensus.

Accountability versus negotiations

Should the international community prioritize accountability over negotiations to stop abuses?

Yes: For many rights advocates, when autocrats participate in human rights violations or mass atrocities, they should not be given carrots to stop the abuses. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has the authority to indict and prosecute rights abusers even if they never signed the Rome Statute or entered the territorial jurisdiction of a state that ratified the treaty. Offering incentives to rulers to halt abuses not only weakens human rights norms, it also may lead rulers to believe they can always strike a deal to avoid prosecution or imprisonment. During World War II, the United States was explicit that the surrender of Nazi Germany must be unconditional. It is hard to imagine giving Hitler or other high-level Nazi figures legal immunity in exchange for a surrender. As is clear from the tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, holding leaders or high-level administrators who participated in atrocities accountable can also be vital to a country’s reconciliation process. Adopting an accountability-based framework could also be a deterrent to those either carrying out or condoning rights violations, because they fear humiliation, sentencing, and imprisonment.

No: Harm-reducing or early retirement plans for rights-abusing autocrats are often preferable to letting crises drag out or deteriorate. Valuing accountability rather than bringing a halt to violations may be principled, but it may not be practical. For example, after the ICC indictment of Sudan’s sitting president, several nongovernmental organizations were ordered to leave the country, placing numerous Sudanese civilians at risk for starvation and violence. Moreover, that rulers can survive or even continue to rule their countries despite an ICC indictment weakens not only rights norms, but also the authority of rights institutions. In other cases, focusing on accountability may be too politically difficult, because the question “Accountable to whom?” must be asked. The veto power of the five permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) members, for example, makes human rights action an uphill battle. Moreover, even if the UNSC or ICC decides to hold a leader accountable, a regional organization may still offer a comfortable exit strategy, creating an imbroglio. When confronted with a popular uprising in 2011, Tunisia’s former president Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, shortening the period of chaos in the country and the transition of power to Tunisians favoring democratic reform. Ali may have escaped prosecution, but many would argue that Tunisia is more stable for it.

Prioritize democracy?

Should the global governance system for human rights focus on institutionalizing democracy?

Yes: Advocates tend to believe that rights are best ensured by a functioning democracy. Without regular free and fair elections and core democratic institutions, it is too easy for even benevolent autocrats to violate the rights of their populations. Democracy proponents also believe that arguments suggesting that certain cultures or regions are ill-suited to democracy rely more on stereotypes than reality. The onset of the Arab Spring, for example, is serious evidence that democracy can be considered a universal concept and value. Many believe that building democracy is the best way to ensure peace, because many studies have suggested that democracies tend not to fight one another. Both the nearly globally accepted UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights emphasize liberal institutions and democratic governance.

No: Others believe that the international community should focus instead on human rights. First, as experience in Afghanistan and Iraq shows, democratization usually demands an extended commitment of time, political capital, and monetary resources. On the other hand, even stable liberal democracies have proven capable of human rights infringement, especially in protecting minority rights against the will of the majority. France, for example, banned Muslim women from wearing the burqa in 2011. In November 2009, Switzerland banned the construction of minarets on mosques, eliciting outrage from various human rights nongovernmental organizations and Muslim groups. By privileging political and civil liberties as higher order rights, democracy promotion can also engender trade-offs with issues related to individuals’ economic, social, and cultural livelihood—something many developing world governments oppose. Other countries fear that too much focus on democracy might evolve into a pretext for interventions justified by human rights concerns, engendering instability and chaos in countries facing a rapid regime transition. Despite the toppling of Egypt’s former authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, stability has not returned to the country. Moreover, even for the most powerful democratic states, cooperating and working with their nondemocratic counterparts is often little short of strategic and economic necessity.

Recent Developments

Nigeria outlaws same-sex marriage

January 2014

On January 7, 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill. This legislation outlaws public displays of affection between homosexual couples in Nigeria and imposes a fourteen-year prison sentence on people involved in a same-sex marriage or civil union, but it leaves the definition of what constitutes such relationships broadly defined and open to extremes of interpretation. The law also strictly limits gay rights activist groups, outlawing assistance to anyone perceived to be homosexual, which, in effect, could dangerously effect AIDS reduction programs by cutting off access to groups and clinics that provide HIV-prevention to homosexual men. International concern and condemnation about the human rights infringements of the legislation has been expressed as well as fears that it will fuel bigotry and violence against those who have or are perceived to have a homosexual orientation.

China closes reeducation camps

December 2013

On December 28, 2014, China voted to abolish “laojiao”, the country’s reeducation through labor policy which has seen hundreds of thousands detained for minor offences since it was first instated in 1957. The system has long been criticized by human rights activists who point to the forced labor, political indoctrination, and harsh, often inhumane treatment of detainees as an outright violation of human rights. The system, which purportedly held nearly 200,000 people in over 300 camps across China, is now in the process of releasing detainees and repurposing the camps, though human rights activists fear for the prisoners that have been simply moved to another form of incarceration, like prison or long-term drug rehabilitation centers. 

Guatemalan war crimes conviction overturned

May 2013

On May 20, 2013, Guatemala’s high court overturned the May 10 conviction of Efra’n R’os Montt, the dictator of Guatemala from 1982 to 1983, who had been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, including the massacres of 1,771 indigenous people and sentenced to eighty years in prison. The war crimes trial began in Guatemala City on March 19, 2013, but was pushed back to April 19 due to a dispute over who should hear the case. No date was set for the trial to restart. Both the trial and the conviction had been hailed as landmarks for human rights as they were the first instance of a former head of state both being put on trial and convicted in Central America, a region where past atrocities have historically been met with impunity.

Alien Tort Statute struck down

April 2013

On Wednesday April 17, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that effectively put an end to the use of a 1789 law called the Alien Tort Statute as an instrument for non-citizens in U.S. courts seeking reparations for human rights violations and atrocities committed by U.S. businesses on foreign soil. The decision stemmed from the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., in which the statute was used by a group of Nigerian citizens to sue Shell Oil for allegedly aiding the Nigerian government in the torture and execution of activists protesting environmental damages caused by the oil operations in the Ogoni region, between 1992 and 1995. The court’s decision implied that the Alien Tort Statue did not generally apply beyond the borders of the United States, unless Congress decides otherwise.

Historic UN code on violence against women

March 2013

On March 16, 2013, the United Nations passed a historic code of conduct to combat the use of violence against women and girls. Countries that originally opposed the declaration, including certain Muslim nations that viewed the code as a threat to traditional cultural values, agreed to language stipulating that violence against women is not justified by "any custom, tradition or religious consideration.” The final negotiations excluded references to gay rights and sexual health rights.

Options for Strengthening the Global Human Rights Regime


U.S. and international action are needed to extend the impact on people’s lives of the global human rights regime. These recommendations reflect the views of Stewart M. Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program, and Mark P. Lagon, CFR adjunct senior fellow for human rights.

Empower regional organizations and NGOs

Empower regional organizations and NGOs to act

Global intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) are important but not enough to alone advance the fullest realization of human rights. Regional organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have also become important actors. The United States, in concert with other leading powers and global IGOs, should actively cultivate a more robust role for regional institutions and NGOs. Rather than host conferences to share best practices, the United States should seek to deepen the already strong efforts of regional organizations, such as that of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for technical assistance and monitoring, and to bolster their capacities, such as that of the African Union (AU) to support UN-authorized military operations. Promising but slowly developing efforts, such as AU and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development’s peer review mechanisms, should be encouraged, especially by other regional organizations and leading African powers. Stalled efforts, such as the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, should be resuscitated. Regional organizations that have largely ignored human rights, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, should be encouraged to integrate them into their charters.

Nongovernmental and civil society organizations committed to liberal values must be further empowered as agents to implement human rights. Many leading liberal powers—Mexico, Japan, and India—do not fully embrace and trust NGOs as partners to governments. The United States should encourage other leading liberal powers to fund and rely on NGOs as partners where applicable, both within their own territory and internationally. The United States should also help IGOs find inventive ways to sidestep member state politics to empower NGOs. A model to scale up and replicate is the UN Democracy Fund, which funds responsible and reliable civil society organizations to advance a wide array of political, civil, economic, and women’s rights.


Encourage more technical assistance to states

Encourage intergovernmental organizations' technical assistance to states

The United States should make a concerted effort to urge intergovernmental organizations to devote more time and resources to help developing countries expand their capacity to protect human rights on the ground. Although they must not abandon roles of speaking truth to power, condemning rank abuses of human dignity, and authorizing experts to monitor human rights, intergovernmental organizations’ (IGOs) finite resources would be best spent on technical assistance. The United States should also push other IGOs to prioritize technical assistance rather than relying solely on explicitly rights-oriented institutions. For instance, the UN Office and Drugs and Crime’s resources should provide more technical assistance to help countries enforce the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons, rather than only help them draft suitable laws.

In the longer term, the United States and its international partners should consider the following steps:


Human Rights Council reform

Further renovate the Human Rights Council and global architecture

In the long run, the global human rights architecture needs to be reformed. Some argue that advances from the UN Commission on Human Rights to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) should not be risked by reopening dialogue on structures. Two reforms, which should not be objectionable to the developing world, are critical. First, UNHRC membership should become universal, so as to not privilege illiberal governments that win elections and to permit governments to spend more time on tangible human rights programs than on elections. Second, the UNHRC should move to New York, where all member states already field delegations, to better inform the work of the UN Security Council, UN Development Program, UN Women, and UN Children’s Fund, and shield the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights from micromanagement by a proximate political body. The United States could also call for further changes in the global architecture by boosting the direct role of regional organizations to shape the work of the global ones without the latter dictating or limiting the former.


Economic and social rights

Rethink economic and social rights

In the long run, the United States can advance the efficacy of the human rights regime by encouraging the global North and South to rethink economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR). The United States has been even less inclined than more social democratic states in the North to embrace the justifiability of ESCR. However, recent U.S. policy priorities—such as combating human trafficking and HIV/AIDS through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) initiative—demonstrate the inseparability of weak rule of law, discrimination, poverty-induced desperation, and poor public health. Aspects of human dignity cannot be compartmentalized. The United States should work with the global North to mobilize more support for political and civil liberties in the South—notably among rising liberal powers by demonstrating more openness to ESCR. So too, the United States should engage the global South to accept limits on ESCR—focusing on equal opportunity and access to food, education, health care, housing, and decent work conditions, rather than equality of outcomes or unrealistic mandates. Finally, the United States should encourage the global South, and particularly rising liberal global powers, to delink their calls for ESCR from efforts to sidetrack multilateral focus on political and civil liberties, which are enablers of ESCR.


Link democracy and human rights policy

Make democracy a touchstone of multilateral human rights policy

Human rights and democracy are not one and the same. Human rights can be incrementally improved in contexts lacking elements of democratic governance. Yet, in the long run, the global human rights regime should be premised on the idea that democratic governance is the best foundation for durable human rights protection. Multilateral institutions should premise their declaratory, diplomatic, and aid policies on democracy as the foundation, as the UN Development Program did between 1999 and 2005. Human rights benefits not only from good governance but also from democratic governance—advancing horizontally among states and vertically by planting deeper institutionalized roots within states and societies.


Promote rights via economic institutions

Use economic institutions to promote and protect human rights

Global economic institutions, given adequate political will, can also help promote and protect human rights. In particular, these institutions should promote the notions of equal access to justice and real-time freedom of information as catalysts for economic development. For instance, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and regional development banks should extend their anticorruption and good governance work to promote equal access to legal rights for all groups with the objective of expanding developing nations’ productivity and prosperity. This effort should include streamlining and expanding projects related to rule of law, bolstering emerging judicial institutions, and promoting the functioning of civil society within countries.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) and its member states should encourage and enforce the elimination of some states’ barriers to freedom of information so as to facilitate market growth. The Obama administration has already accused China of violating WTO rules through its widespread Internet censorship. Although a 2009 ruling by the WTO concerning intellectual property in China came close to addressing the problem, it largely sidestepped censorship. Should China or other states, such as Venezuela, that engage in censorship be found in violation of global trade rules, they may be forced to relax government controls on information to avoid measures including, but not limited to, costly punitive tariffs.


United Nations Core Documents



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

International Labor Organization (ILO) Forced Labor Convention (1930)

Defines forms of forced and compulsory labor.

UN Charter (1945)

Seeks to maintain international peace and security, develop positive relations among nations based on equal rights and self-determination of peoples, achieve international cooperation in solving international problems, and be a center for unifying national actions toward enumerated common goals.

UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948)

Affirms inherent dignity of all peoples, universal right to freedom and equal rights--both enumerated and unstated--of men, women, and children. Includes civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Ultimately, UDHR, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights referred to as International Bill of Rights.

International Labor Organization (ILO) Migration for Employment Convention (1949)

Enumerates the rights of migrant workers, including equal and fair treatment as national workers.

UN Convention Against Discrimination in Education (1960)

Prohibits educational discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition, or birth. Commits state parties to implement national policies promoting equal opportunity and treatment related to education. Mandates reporting on legislative and administrative progress toward goals of the convention.

UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)

Condemns and seeks to end racial discrimination. Prohibits limitation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in political, economic, social, cultural, or other fields of public life on basis of race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin.

International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966)

Promotes right to self-determination and commits state parties to promote realization of that right. Recognizes economic right to work, just and favorable work conditions, unionize, social security, social protection of the family, adequate standard of living, highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, education, partake in cultural life, enjoy benefits of scientific progress, protection of intellectual property, and others.

International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1968)

Defines crime of apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” Declares such offenses crimes against humanity.

International Labor Organization (ILO) Minimum Age Convention (1973)

Established minimum age requirements for admission to employment and work. Long term goal of eliminating all forms of child labor.

UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (1979)

Most comprehensive international agreement seeking advancement for women. Prohibits discrimination against women in education, employment, health care, law, politics, trade, and domestic relations.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)

Establishes expansive protections for children’s rights, obligating governments to protect these rights and act with children’s best interests in mind. Enumerated rights include survival and development; registration and preservation of identity; family reunification; protection from kidnapping; freedom of expression, thought, conscience, and religion; right to privacy; access to information; protection from violence; education; health; freedom from exploitation and abuse; and protection from armed conflict.

UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families (1990)

Ensures minimum protections to migrants. Prohibits discrimination against migrants on the basis of their race, nationality, ethnicity, sex, and religion in all aspects of work, including employment, working conditions, promotion, health care, and basic services. Protects migrants against arbitrary expulsion.

International Labor Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998)

Commits member states to promote and protect rights in four categories: freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, elimination of forced labor, abolition of child labor, and elimination of discrimination in employment.

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (1999)

Establishes complaint and inquiry mechanisms for CEDAW. Allows Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women to consider complaints from individuals or groups within its jurisdiction.

Optional Protocol to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (2000)

Optional protocol to UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Attempts to prevent those under eighteen from involvement in armed conflict.

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2000)

Defines human trafficking. Prevents and protects victims of human trafficking, particularly women and children.

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (2000)

Optional protocol to UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Requires states to prohibit sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography.

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006)

Intended to protect rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. Parties required to ensure full enjoyment of human rights by those with disabilities as well as full equality under the law.

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006)

Establishes individual complaints mechanism for Committee on the Rights of Person with Disabilities.

UN General Assembly Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)

Outlines individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, and education.

Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (2008)

Expands authority and role of Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) by allowing it to conduct inquiries when evidence of “grave or systematic violations” of the covenant is present. Places greater emphasis on views of CESCR, augmenting its role in interpreting covenant. Allows individuals and private groups to submit communications to CESCR.

UN Convention on the Punishment and Crime of Genocide (1948)

First human rights treaty adopted by UN General Assembly. Defines genocide as intentional destruction of a national, racial, ethnic, or religious group. Classifies it as a crime against humanity. Specifies that it can be committed during war or peace. Enumerates five punishable acts: genocide, conspiracy to commit, incitement to commit, attempt to commit, and complicity.

UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951)

Legally defines refugee, refugee rights, and legal obligations of the state. Operates under UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which leads and coordinates international action to protect refugees’ rights and resolve the issues of refugees and stateless people. Stipulates that states should not return refugees to where they suffered persecution or to any other country where they would be at risk (nonrefoulement).

Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity (1968)

Removes statutory limits for war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined by Nuremberg Principles, eviction or“inhumane acts” from apartheid policies, and UN Genocide Convention—even if such acts were legal under domestic laws.

UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1976)

Enumerates civil and political human rights: life; no compulsory labor; being charged with a crime if arrested; presumption of innocence; freedom of movement; privacy; freedom of expression and religion; freedom of association; nationality at birth; and many others. Establishes that individual rights are protected by international community.

UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Torture Convention) (1987)

Defines torture as an intentional act designed to inflict severe pain or suffering, mental or physical, with the objective of obtaining information or a confession or of punishing or intimidating an individual or third party. Establishes that parties are obligated to prevent acts of torture through legislative, administrative, judicial, and other mechanisms, and that prohibition of acts of torture must be upheld at all times.

UN Second Optional Protocol on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty (1991)

Maintains that member states not subject anyone within their jurisdiction to death penalty and that all states party take all necessary measures to abolish it.

Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) (2002)

Created Subcmmittee on Prevention of Torture. State parties obligated to create or define national preventive mechanisms within one year of ratification to end practices of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

UN 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (2005)

Reaffirms commitment to UN Charter, international law, and the Millennium Development Goals for the twenty-first century. Claims individual state responsibility for protecting “its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Asserts UN should otherwise be prepared to take collective action.

International Convention for the Protection of All Persons From Enforced Disappearances (2006)

Defines enforced disappearances. Asserts no person should ever be subjected to them. Established Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) to monitor implementation and assess potential cases. Clarifies standards of incarceration and, when necessary, restitution.

UN Human Rights Council Report on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression (2011)

Frames Internet access as an extension to rights of the individual to freedom of speech, opinion, and expression, which include the right to receive, impart, and seek information. Applies to accessing and publishing information online without restriction, and to using technologies that enable Internet access.

Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1993/22: The Right to Development (1993)

Reaffirms inalienable right to economic, social, cultural, and political development. Identifies macroeconomic obstacles as hindering development. Criticizes lack of coordination within UN on implementing the UN Declaration on the Right to Development. Established open-ended working group on right to development.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security (2000)

Calls for increased participation and representation of women at all levels of peace and security decision-making. Recognizes disproportionate impact of conflict on women. Affirms need to incorporate gender perspectives in UN programming and peacekeeping operations.

UN Human Rights Commission Resolution: 2004/48: Rights of a Child (2004)

Urges states to sign and implement Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols. Increases size of Committee on the Rights of the Child. Provides policy recommendations related to identity, family relations, and birth registration; poverty; health; education; freedom from violence; nondiscrimination against girls, children with disabilities, and migrant children; protecting children in situations such as child labor or homelessness; preventing and eradicating child pornography and prostitution; and protecting children in armed conflict.

UN Security Council Resolution 1593, Referring Sudan to the International Criminal Court (2005)

Opened investigation into crimes committed in Darfur region of Sudan under Rome Statute of International Criminal Court (ICC) concerning genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. First UN Security Council (UNSC) referral to ICC.

UN Human Rights Commission Resolution 2005/24: Right to Physical and Mental Health (2005)

Calls for all states to guarantee, without discrimination, highest attainable standard of physical and mental health for everyone. Asks international community to support developing states’ provision of heath care. Emphasizes support and care for people with mental health issues. Encourages gender perspective in public health. Extends mandate for special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

UN Human Rights Council Decision 1/106: Human rights situation in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories (2006)

Establishes discussion of “Israeli occupation of Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” as permanent agenda item.

UN General Assembly Resolution Moratorium on Executions (2007)

Calls for worldwide moratorium on executions. Reiterated UN commitment to abolition of death penalty.

UN Human Rights Council Resolution (HRC) 5/1: Institution Building (2007)

Establishes working methods for HRC, including universal periodic review process, special procedures, HRC advisory committee, and complaint procedures. Also outlines HRC agenda, framework, and rules of procedure.

UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution 7/23: Human Rights and Climate Change (2008)

Recognizes that climate change affects human rights. Establishes issue as agenda item.

UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution 8/11: Human Rights and Extreme Poverty (2008)

Emphasizes extreme poverty as a human rights issue and calls for its eradication. Extends mandate for three years per Millennium Development Goals.

UN Human Rights Council Resolution 17/L.9: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (2011)

Emphasizes universal human rights for all individuals regardless of sexual orientation, and encourages international efforts to promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons.

UN Security Council Resolution 1973 Authorizing No-Fly Zone in Libya (2011)

Builds on UN Security Council Resolution 1970 by authorizing use of force in enforcing no-fly zone, demanding an immediate ceasefire in Libya, and expanding asset freeze and arms embargo.

UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Combating Intolerance and Violence Against Persons Based on Religion or Belief (2011)

Calls on member states to enact policies that protect and respect freedom of religion and religious sites. Emphasizes strengthening international efforts to promote religious tolerance.

Core Documents



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907)

Established set of conventions for peaceful resolution of differences and norms and laws of war. Created new standards for treatment of wounded during maritime warfare, specifically for nonaggression toward hospital ships, wounded soldiers and sailors, and neutral seafarers.

The Covenant of the League of Nations (1919)

Established League of Nations, an organization intended to promote international cooperation and promote world peace.

League of Nations Anti-Slavery Convention (1926)

Prevent and actively suppress slave trade. Work toward abolition.

Geneva Conventions (1949)

Four conventions to afford wartime protection of sick and wounded on land; sick, wounded, and shipwrecked at sea; prisoners of war; and all civilians.

Rome Statute (1998)

Establishes first permanent international treaty-based court, the International Criminal Court.

Organization of the African Unity (OAU) Conventions Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (1969)

Expanded definition of refugee beyond Geneva Convention accounting for African perspective. Called for granting of asylum to refugees. Member states can appeal to OAU for assistance in accepting refugees.

African Union (AU) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter) (1981)

Codified basic human rights—including political and civil freedoms as well as economic, social, and cultural rights. Stipulates duties of protected citizens.

African Union (AU) Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990)

Mandates nondiscrimination, right to basic freedoms, protections, and education for everyone under eighteen years old.

African Union (AU) Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003)

Guarantees internationally recognized rights for women, health and reproductive rights, equal legal protection, and protection from female genital mutilation.

Organization of American States (OAS) Declaration of the Rights And Duties of Man (1948)

Outlines rights and duties, including rights to life, liberty, religious freedom, residence, and freedom of expression.

Organization of American States (OAS) American Convention on Human Rights (San Jose Pact) (1969)

Affirms political and civic rights of all persons. Also includes right to life from moment of conception. Established Inter-American Court of Human Rights to settle interstate disputes.

Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Program for the Promotion and Protection of the Human Rights of Migrants, Including Migrant Workers and their Families (2005)

Tasked with protecting and promoting human rights of migrant workers through better integration of various OAS organs, mechanisms, and organizations.

Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Democratic Charter (2011)

Affirms democracy as the sole acceptable form of governance. Codifies fundamental values and rights, including basic human rights, free and fair elections, respect for social rights, and elimination of discrimination.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons Particularly Women and Children (2004)

Established regional focal network to combat human trafficking. Pledged to forge cooperation on coercive action against traffickers and bolster prevention.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women in the ASEAN Region (2004)

Encourages women’s rights through research of oppression against women. Promotes more equal legislation. Strives to eliminate discrimination.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (2007)

Protects fundamental rights of workers and promotes cross-border cooperation to resolve migrant issues.

Atlantic Charter (1941)

Proclaimed universal right to government self-determination. Set stage for United Nations.

European Convention on Human Rights (1950)

Acknowledges and reinforces rights outlined in Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Established European Court of Human Rights to settle interstate disputes.

Final Act of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975)

Emphasizes territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of disputes, respect for international law, and “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief.”

Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU) (2000)

Codified a range of civil, political, economic, and social rights for European citizens and all persons resident in the EU. Member states must act and legislate consistently with charter.

Universal Islamic Declaration on Human Rights (1981)

Establishes human rights norms within Islamic world. Emphasizes Islamic root of human rights and affirms twenty-three universal rights, including freedom from discrimination, right to justice and education, and rights of married women.

Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004)

Affirms universality of human rights. Recognizes right to health, education, fair trial, and freedom from torture.

Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Covenant on the Rights of the Child in Islam (2005)

Promotes children’s rights in accordance with sharia law, prioritizes care and capability for families through education, and calls for safety of children to “adhere to their faith...loyal to their country.”

Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Statute for Permanent Commission on Human Rights (2011)

Promotes civil, political, social and economic rights enshrined in OIC covenants and declarations. Supports consolidation of said rights while rejecting notion of universality of human rights.




For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

World Bank (1944)

Promotes economic development in world’s poorer countries through advice, long-term lending, and concessional grants. Human rights activities are indirect and exclusively related to development issues, such as the Community Driven Development program, which empowers impoverished communities and promotes social accountability. The Nordic Trust Fund seeks to educate World Bank staff about human rights.

United Nations (UN) (1945)

Collective security organization dedicated to promoting peace, justice, and human rights. Charter designed to supersede all other treaties.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) (1945)

Promotes international monetary cooperation, exchange rate stability, and temporary financial assistance for countries facing balance-of-payments problems. Addresses human rights through poverty reduction, sustainable growth, and macroeconomic stability.

International Labor Organization (ILO) (1919/1946)

Flagship UN organization dedicated to promoting social justice and internationally recognized labor rights within broader human rights framework.

International Court of Justice (ICJ) (1945)

Main UN judicial wing. Settles disagreements between member states when an issue is referred. Advises UN on compliance with international law. Jurisdiction to rule on human rights issues brought before the court.

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (1946)

Seeks to improve child health and provide humanitarian, emergency, and long-term assistance. Strives to raise awareness of child trafficking, labor, and exploitation. Focuses on health, basic education, and development in order to safeguard and promote children’s rights. Primary advocate for children’s human rights within UN system. Efforts guided by Convention on the Rights of the Child.

UN Human Rights Commission (1946)

Principal UN mechanism and forum to advance and protect human rights until 2006. Replaced by Human Rights Council.

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (1950)

Leads and coordinates international action to safeguard rights and well-being of refugees; strives to resolve global refugee problems through advocacy, assistance, and capacity building.

UN Development Program (UNDP) (1965)

UN development arm. Promotes a human rights-based approach to development (PDF) by bolstering national capacity to protect human rights, encouraging human rights focused programs, and engaging with international human rights community.

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) (1993)

Forum for determining a response to global human rights issues. Administers technical assistance to national institutions and programs concerned with justice, legislation, and elections. Provides a point of convergence for research, education, advocacy, and information dissemination.

World Trade Organization (WTO) 1995

Oversees WTO trade agreements, serves as forum for trade negotiations, adjudicates trade disputes, monitors states’ trade policies. Provides technical assistance to developing countries. Addresses human rights indirectly by promoting food security and alleviating poverty through free trade.

UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) (2006)

Promotes and protects human rights globally. Addresses gross violations. Enhances international cooperation. Recommends further improvement mechanisms for dealing with human rights issues.

Nuremberg Trials (1945)

Prosecuted Nazi war criminals for war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. First codification in international law.

International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo Trials) (1946)

Tried the Empire of Japan for crimes committed in East Asia.

International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (1993)

Adjudicates war crimes committed in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Claims primacy over jurisdiction of national courts.

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1994)

Adjudicates crimes committed in 1994 against humanitarian and international law in Rwanda and neighboring countries.

International Criminal Court (1998)

Prosecutes those who commit crimes of international interest: war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, inciting conflict, and crimes of aggression (pending definition).

Special Court for Sierra Leone (2002)

Tries crimes against humanitarian and international law committed in Sierra Leone since 1996.

Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (2003)

Tries crimes committed by Khmer Rouge from 1975 through 1979.

African Union (AU) African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (2004)

Promotes and protects human rights throughout African continent; interprets African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; considers individual complaints of violations.

African Union (AU) African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) (1986)

Promotes and protects human rights throughout African continent; interprets African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Prepares cases for review by the African Union Court on Peoples’ and Human Rights.

African Union (AU) African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990)

Promotes and protects rights enshrined in African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Monitors implementation in member states.

African Union (AU) African Court of Justice (ACJ) (2003)

Promotes and protects human rights and good governance in Africa.

African Union (AU) Court of Justice and Human Rights (ACJHR) (2008)

Planned to be main African Union judicial organ to protect and promote human rights. Formulates rules aimed at solving legal problems relating to human rights in Africa.

Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) (1959)

Observes general human rights situation in member states and makes recommendations. Receives, analyzes, and investigates individual petitions that allege human rights violations. Submits cases to and litigates before Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Court of Human Rights (ACHR) (1979)

Enforces and interprets provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights. Advisory and adjudicatory capacities.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (2009)

Promotes and protects human rights in ASEAN taking into account regional and cultural norms and ideals.

Council of Europe (1949)

Seeks to promote common principles of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. Ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights is a prerequisite to membership.

European Union Court of Justice (1952)

Ensures that EU laws are correctly and equally interpreted and applied.

European Court of Human Rights (1953)

Hears and rules on individual or state applications that allege violations of rights outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) (1991)

Monitors implementation of human rights commitments.

Arab League Standing Committee on Human Rights (1994)

Promotes and safeguards human rights.

Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Independent Permanent Commission for Human Rights (2011)

Protects and monitors human rights and provides recommendations on promoting good governance in member states. Operates under mandate of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Initiatives and Offices



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1915)

Brings women around the world together to achieve peace through nonviolence and to promote political, social, and economic justice. Working groups focus on issue areas such as peace and security, global economic justice, racism, and UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

Freedom House (1941)

Promotes democratic change, monitors relative freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

International Commission of Jurists (1953)

Advances international law and principles promoting human rights. Provides legal expertise at international and national levels.

Amnesty International (1961)

Monitors human rights in more than 150 countries worldwide. Campaigns to defend freedom of expression, protect women’s rights, end capital punishment, seek justice for crimes against humanity, and increase corporate accountability regarding human rights. Won Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for efforts to promote human rights.

Association for the Prevention of Torture (1977)

Promotes use of legal instruments, preventive mechanisms, capacity building, and other practical tools to prevent torture, including effective detection mechanisms and informational materials on human rights treaties. Works in partnership with state authorities, police services, judiciaries, national human rights institutions, international organizations, and NGOs.

Committee to Protect Journalists (1981)

Promotes press freedom worldwide by protecting journalists’ rights to report without fear of retribution.

Physicians for Human Rights (1986)

Uses medicine and science to aid and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Shared Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 with Human Rights Watch for its work as part of International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Asian Human Rights Commission (1986)

Promotes human rights respect and awareness in Asia, and seeks relief for victims of human rights violations. Supports civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.

Human Rights Watch (1988) (formerly Helsinki Watch)

Dedicated to defending and protecting human rights globally by investigating and exposing human rights abuses and challenging governments on human rights violations. Seeks to build moral and legal case for greater justice and security. Shared Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 with Physicians for Human Rights for its work in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (1990)

Advances human rights to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (1993)

Promotes democracy and human rights culture in the Middle East through intercultural exchange, education, and advocacy.

Global Witness (1993)

Campaigns against natural resource-related conflict and corruption and associated human rights abuses. Work in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ivory Coast raised public awareness of blood diamonds and resulted in Kimberley Process Certification Scheme.

Derechos Human Rights (1995)

Works for respect and promotion of human rights and international humanitarian law, the right to privacy, and struggles against impunity for human rights violators.

Arab Commission for Human Rights (1998)

Dedicated to protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Arab world, guided by international human rights instruments.

Free the Slaves (2000)

Seeks to end modern slavery worldwide by motivating greater awareness and action toward this goal.

Fund for Global Human Rights (2002)

Awards grants to NGOs that advocate for human rights in their communities.

Save Darfur (2004)

Seeks to end violence, facilitate humanitarian aid, promote return of displaced people, encourage long-term sustainable development, and hold perpetrators accountable in Darfur, Sudan.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (1919)

Supports and promotes humanitarian activities abroad, specifically in disaster relief and emergency preparedness.

International Federation for Human Rights (1922)

Seeks to ensure human rights defenders’ freedom to act, universality of rights, respect for human rights by all actors, and maintenance of human rights and the rule of law during conflict and political transitions.

Cartagena Declaration on Refugees (1984)

Seeks to create a new basis for national refugee policies, including a definition of the word refugee.

Open Society Foundations (1993)

Ensures that at least one mainstream NGO is present in each region to identify human rights abuses and promote government accountability. Focuses its Human Rights Fund on Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Mongolia.

Right to Education Project (1999)

Identifies and targets violations of basic rights to education by researching and analyzing more than two hundred indicators. Promotes social mobilization and law reform to ensure more equitable access to education.

Independent Commission on Kosovo (1999)

Examining key developments related to Kosovo war; providing objective analysis; identifying key failures of diplomacy and international norms; determining adequacy of norms and institutions to handle similar occurrences.

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) (2000)

Better understand challenge of reconciling intervention and state sovereignty. Foster global consensus on issue.

Inter-American Program and Protection of the Human Rights of Migrants, Including Migrant Workers and their Families (2005)

Focuses on promoting and protecting human rights for migrants in OAS states in thirty-three activities.

UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) (2005)

Provides grants for two-year projects on its six main focus areas: community development, rule of law and human rights, tools for democratization, women, youth, and media. Grants range from $50,000 to $500,000.

Enough! (2006)

Seeks to build permanent constituency to raise awareness about preventing genocide and crimes against humanity. Campaigns focus on current conflict areas of Sudan and South Sudan, Eastern Congo, Northern Uganda, and Somalia.

Charter 08 (2008)

Based on six fundamental ideas: freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy, and constitutionalism. Enumerates nineteen China-specific steps deemed essential to establishing “a free, democratic, and constitutional nation.”

Global Equality Fund (2011)

Promotes LGBT rights, advocacy, and awareness globally. Seeks to build capacity for human rights abuse documentation and reporting in partner states. Advances personal security of LGBT human rights defenders through legal representation and relocation support.


Institutionalized Famine - North Korea

According to the UN World Food Program, approximately six million people are enduring severe food shortages in North Korea attributable to a combination of economic mismanagement, widespread flooding, and a harsh winter. The ruling regime, led by Kim Jong-un, rations food for the population; according to reports, in July 2011 the government provided only two hundred grams of food per person per day—10 percent of the commonly recommended intake. In the 1990s, the food distribution system in North Korea imploded and nearly one million people starved to death. Refugees who recently fled the country report that the country is sinking back into a similarly widespread famine.

Media Censorship - China

To defy and prevent challenges to its political authority, the Chinese government has kept a tight rein on traditional and digital media. According to watchdog organizations, this entails monitoring systems, shutting down publications and websites, and arresting dissident writers, bloggers, and activists. Although the Chinese constitution includes the freedom of speech and press, the government restricts freedom of the press through vaguely worded media regulations that should officially only criminalize sharing state secrets that endanger the country. Recent controversies have drawn increased international attention on media censorship in China, such as Google’s public battle with the Chinese government and the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed activist, Liu Xiaobo.

Political Repression - Myanmar

Since 1962, Myanmar has been ruled by an authoritarian military junta that until recently controlled its opposition with brutal, and often violent, political repression. However, since the controversial elections and subsequent transfer of power in November 2010, the new civilian government has instituted a number of reforms, which include releasing some political prisoners, establishing a human rights commission, easing press restrictions, and amending election laws. Notably, the government is allowing Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and leader of the democratic opposition movement, to run for parliamentary office in the country’s next election. In a major policy shift, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December 2011, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country in fifty years. During her visit, she announced that the United States would relax some restrictions on financial assistance to Myanmar. The United States has since allowed U.S. companies to invest in Mynamar.

Indigenous Rights - Australia

Indigenous Australians, descendants of those who lived in Australia before the arrival of British colonists in 1788, suffered a precipitous population decline throughout the nineteenth century due to colonial conflict and disease. Many were dispossessed of their land and faced racial discrimination. In September 2007, after twenty-five years of negotiations and debate, the UN General Assembly adopted the nonbinding Resolution 61/295, which affirmed the basic human rights of indigenous people, including the rights to culture, identity, language, employment, and education. Although Australia and the United States originally voted against the resolution, both countries subsequently endorsed it in 2009 and 2010 (PDF).

Human Trafficking - Turkmenistan

In 2012, the U.S. State Department placed Turkmenistan on the Tier 2 Watch List. The Trafficking in Persons Report indicates that, despite efforts to comply with the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, Turkmenistan failed to adequately identify and protect victims of human trafficking. Although it passed a law to combat human trafficking in December 2007, the country remains a major exporter of men and women who are subjected to forced labor and prostitution.

The State Department estimates that twenty-seven million people are victimized by human trafficking around the world.

Women's Rights - Saudi Arabia

In September 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced that, for the first time, women would be allowed to vote, stand for election, and join the next Shura council, a consultative governing body. Although the reforms do not take effect until 2015 and may not, as some have suggested, go far enough, the king’s announcement was a significant normative step toward equal rights for women in the country. Traditionally, women have largely been excluded from public and civic roles. The broader context of the Arab Spring, particularly the popular revolts in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, may have played a role in the government’s decision.

Right to Internet Access - Finland

In July 2010, Finland became the first country in the world to make access to broadband Internet a legal right for every citizen. The “universal service obligation” legislation compels providers to supply a reasonably priced broadband connection to every permanent residence and business in Finland. The Finnish government vowed to connect the entire population to broadband Internet by 2015; 96 percent of the population already has Internet access.

According to a BBC survey, nearly four in five people around the world believe that Internet access should be a fundamental right.

Oil Lawsuit - Nigeria

Following two consecutive oil spills in the Niger Delta in 2008, the community there filed a lawsuit for damages against Royal Dutch Shell PLC in a United Kingdom court in April 2011. According to Amnesty International, the oil spills, caused by faults in a pipeline, led thousands of barrels of oil to pollute the land and water system in the Niger Delta, destroying (PDF) the livelihoods of more than sixty-nine thousand people living in the region. Both spills have yet to be addressed by Royal Dutch Shell, which is the oldest operating oil company in Nigeria.

In a report that found excessive contamination in ten of fifteen sites, the UN recommended (PDF) that the oil company pay an initial $1 billion to cover the first five years of cleanup efforts, which could take up to thirty years.

Systematic Genocide - Sudan

In 2003, two Sudanese rebel groups began attacks on government targets to protest its preferential treatment of Arabs over black Africans. In response, the government carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against black Africans through proxy militias, known as the janjaweed, in the region of Darfur. In July 2004, the U.S. Congress declared the violence in Darfur to be genocide; a few months later, both President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell used the term in prominent speeches, marking the first time in history that such senior U.S. officials classified a current crisis as genocide. In 2007, the joint African Union-UN hybrid peacekeeping operation launched in Darfur, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide, the first time the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state. Since the outbreak of violence in Darfur, an estimated three hundred thousand have died and more than two million have been displaced.

Responsibility to Protect - Libya

In response to threats of massacre by former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, the UN Security Council voted to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. The military intervention in Libya, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), reflects the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

R2P states that each government is individually responsible for protecting its civilian population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. If a government fails to meet these obligations, the international community reserves the right to protect civilians, by force if necessary. 

Torture and the Geneva Conventions - Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility

The George W. Bush administration began transporting suspected terrorists to Guantanamo for interrogation in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. Alleged methods of interrogation—such as sleep deprivation, waterboarding, shackling in stress positions, and prolonged exposure to cold temperatures—were decried as torture by the international community; in 2006, the UN Committee against Torture recommended that the U.S. government cease operations and close the detention facility immediately. In total, Guantanamo has imprisoned 779 people since 2002. In January 2009, U.S. president Obama ordered the prison to close within the year. Yet, the facility remains operational.

Impunity - Guatemala

Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. The weak—and corrupt—political and law enforcement institutions have little capability to effectively combat or mitigate the escalating violence. According to nongovernmental organizations monitoring the country, the impunity rate for violent crime in 2009 was 99.75 percent; that is, the vast majority of crimes in the country have not been addressed by the legal system. The violence is largely perpetrated by illegal armed groups targeting all sectors of civil society, including judges, journalists, and activists, and is exacerbated by the drug trade. Although the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICG), sanctioned by the UN, is making modest improvements to strengthen the rule of law and investigate institutional corruption, levels of violence have remained high. In 2011, the UN extended the CICIG mandate until September 2013.



John B. Bellinger III, Adjunct Senior Fellow for International and National Security Law

Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program

Mark P. Lagon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Fellow for Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Deputy Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program

Rachel B. Vogelstein, Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy

Matthew C. Waxman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Law and Foreign Policy


1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

Lecture: Michael Ignatieff, "Human Rights as Politics

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Speech: Hillary Clinton, Remarks on the Human Rights Agenda for the Twenty-First Century

Foreign Affairs: "And Justice for All


United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: Report 2010

U.S. Department of State: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2010

CFR Council Special Report: "Justice Beyond the Hague: Supporting the Prosecution of International Crimes in National Courts


The Economist: "Compass Fails


CFR Expert Brief: "Promoting Human Rights: Is U.S. Consistency Desirable or Possible?


Human Rights Watch: "Keeping the Momentum: One Year in the Life of the UN Human Rights Council



CFR: A Conversation With Aung San Suu Kyi


CFR Crisis Guide: Darfur

(Multimedia Interactive)

Geoffrey Robertson on the History of Human Rights


CFR: Interview With Desmond Tutu


CFR: "Slavery and Supply Chains: What Businesses can do to Fight Human Trafficking

" (Video)


Kathryn Sikkink, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutors Are Changing World Politics (W. W. Norton, 2011)

Beth A. Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Micheline Ishay, ed., The Human Rights Reader: Major Political Essays, Speeches, and Documents from Ancient Times to the Present, Second Edition (Routledge, 2007)

Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (W. W. Norton, 2007)

James W. Nickel, Making Sense of Human Rights (Blackwell, 2007)

Micheline Ishay, The History of Human Rights From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era (University of California Press, 2004)

Makau Mutua, Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002)

David Chandler, ed., Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)

Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper, Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives (Routledge, 1995)


Freedom House: Freedom in the World 2012

Human Rights Watch

U.S. Congress: Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) Human Rights Dataset