International Human Rights
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International Human Rights

Jack Donnelly, Daniel Whelan

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International Human Rights

Jack Donnelly, Daniel Whelan

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International Human Rights examines the ways in which states and other international actors have addressed human rights since the end of World War II. This unique textbook features substantial attention to theory, history, international and regional institutions, and the role of transnational actors in the protection and promotion of human rights. Its purpose is to explore the difficult and contentious politics of human rights, and how those political dimensions have been addressed at the national, regional, and especially international levels.

The fifth edition is substantially revised throughout, including updates on multilateral institutions, particularly the UN's Universal Periodic Review process; regional systems; human rights in foreign policy (including a chapter on U.S. policy); humanitarian intervention; globalization; and (anti)terrorism and human rights. The book also includes a new chapter on the unity of human rights, and new case studies exploring the UN Human Rights Council's Special Procedures mechanisms, Myanmar, and Israeli settlements in West-Bank Palestine. Chapters include discussion questions, case studies for in-depth examination of topics, and ten "problems" tailored to promote classroom discussion on topics such as the war in Syria, hierarchies between human rights, and much more.

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History and Theory



Human Rights in Global Politics: Historical Perspective

There are many historically important precursors to the recognition of human rights as a matter of global concern. Only with the end of World War II and the establishment of the United Nations (U.N.), however, did human rights begin to take on an internationally obligatory nature.
The recognition of limited religious rights for some Christian minorities in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end, is perhaps the earliest precursor of the idea of international human rights. Several treaties concluded in the aftermath of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, such as those affirming the sovereignty and independence of states such as Belgium (1815) and Greece (1832), included provisions protecting the rights of religious and linguistic minorities. In 1878, the major powers of Europe conditioned their recognition of the sovereignty and independence of Serbia on a guarantee of religious liberty. Nineteenth-century campaigns against the slave trade and slavery had clear overtones of what today we would call human rights advocacy. After World War I, workers’ rights and minority rights were addressed by the newly created International Labor Organization and League of Nations. Nonetheless, prior to World War II there was near-universal agreement that human rights were not a legitimate concern of international relations. For example, the Covenant of the League of Nations, which is usually seen as an expression of the idealism of the immediate post–World War I era, does not even include the term human rights.
This reflected a particular understanding of sovereignty, which has been the organizing principle of international relations for the past three centuries. States, the primary actors in international relations, are seen as sovereign, that is, supreme authorities, and thus subject to no higher political authority in their own territories. The principal duty correlative to the right of sovereignty is nonintervention, the obligation not to interfere in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of sovereign states (see §2.8). Human rights, which typically involve a state’s treatment of its own citizens in its own territory, were until relatively recently seen as such a matter of protected domestic jurisdiction. A major purpose of this book is to chronicle the ways in which, over the past seventy years, human rights have produced fundamental changes in understandings and practices of state sovereignty.

1. The Emergence of International Human Rights Norms

The contemporary human rights movement can be more directly traced back to the era between the two world wars. For example, the International Law Commission adopted the Declaration of the International Rights of Man in 1929. In the 1930s British novelist and activist H. G. Wells cast much of his advocacy for social reform in terms of a global regime committed to human rights. Such efforts, however, represented only a small fringe of civil society. Even those who believed that all human beings had an extensive set of equal and inalienable rights—a distinctly minority idea in an era that had little trouble justifying racism, sexism, and colonialism—did not suggest that other states had rights or obligations with respect to those rights. And not a single state endorsed the idea that governments had international human rights obligations to their own citizens.
This began to change during World War II. As the Allied powers reflected on the nature of their struggle with Hitler’s Germany—and on how to justify the war to their own citizens and the rest of the world—respect for human rights became an increasingly central theme. In his January 1941 State of the Union address, nearly a year before the United States entered the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt framed the Allied war effort in terms of securing four fundamental freedoms: of speech, of religion, from want, and from fear. This initial statement was further elaborated by Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill, who negotiated a statement of Allied war aims in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941. The January 1942 Declaration by United Nations claimed that “complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands.” From late 1942 on, human rights were a part of postwar planning efforts within both the American and the British governments, the two leading Allied powers.
The immediate impetus for international action, however, came in 1945 as Allied governments and publics began to reflect on the Holocaust, Germany’s systematic mass murder of millions of innocent civilians, a crime that the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin had recently named genocide. Before the war, little was done to aid Jews trying to flee Germany and surrounding countries. Some who escaped were even denied refuge by Allied governments, including the United States. During the war, no effort was made to impede the functioning of the death camps. The Allies did not even target the railway lines that brought hundreds of thousands to the slaughter at Auschwitz and other camps. The world watched—or, rather, turned a blind eye to—the genocidal massacre of six million Jews, a half-million Gypsies (Roma), and tens of thousands of communists, social democrats, homosexuals, church activists, and just ordinary decent people who refused complicity in the new politics and technology of barbarism. As the war came to an end, though, Allied leaders and citizens, previously preoccupied with military victory, finally began to confront this horror.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, which began in 1945, introduced the novel charge of crimes against humanity. (These crimes were distinct from already-recognized violations of the laws of war, which had been codified at the beginning of the twentieth century in the so-called Hague Laws.) For the first time, officials were held legally accountable to the international community for offenses against individual civilians, not states, whether or not those civilians were citizens of the governments that committed the crimes.
These shocking crimes were crucial in mobilizing broad support for international action. But they were only the tip of the iceberg. Many organizations and individuals had already recognized that wartime atrocities had been preceded by, and built on, years of systematic state-imposed violations of fundamental rights. Prior to the instigation of the Final Solution, Jews and others perceived opponents and “deviants” in Germany had been stripped of many of the civil, political, and economic rights they held prior to Hitler’s rise to power. In addition, there was general agreement that the worldwide economic depression and ensuing economic insecurity of the 1930s contributed significantly to the rise of rights-abusive regimes and to the unraveling of the international system, which precipitated the war. Proposals for the protection of fundamental rights thus become a central focus of postwar international institutions, leading to the incorporation of human rights into the Charter of the United Nations, which was adopted in San Francisco in the summer of 1945.
The Preamble of the U.N. Charter lists as two of the four principal objectives of the organization “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,” and “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” Likewise, Article 1 lists as one of the four purposes of the United Nations “to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
These statements were in themselves revolutionary. Even more radical was the creation in 1946 of the Commission on Human Rights under the auspices of the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The Commission quickly began to define these abstract statements of postwar optimism and goodwill. The original Commission was composed of eighteen elected members who were broadly representative of the (then fifty-one) members of the United Nations. Its first task was to draft an “international bill of rights,” which would include a declaration of principles and a legally binding human rights convention (treaty), along with institutions and procedures for their enforcement. The Commission quickly decided to focus its attention on the first part of the bill, which in 1948 became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The initial drafts were written by John Humphrey, a young Canadian member of the Commission’s staff, and RenĂ© Cassin, the French member of the Commission. There was widespread and essential participation, though, by non-Western representatives. The drafting committee included P. C. Chang of China (the vice chair of the Commission), Charles Malik of Lebanon (the rapporteur of the Commission), and Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile. Each, along with the chair of both the Commission and the drafting committee, Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, played a major role in shaping the Declaration.

2. The Universal Declaration

By the fall of 1948, after barely a year and a half of work, the Commission had completed a brief statement of principles. It was adopted as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly on December 10, 1948. (December 10 is thus celebrated globally as Human Rights Day.) The vote was forty-eight in favor, none opposed, with eight abstentions. Saudi Arabia abstained principally because of provisions that allowed Muslims to change their religion. South Africa abstained because of the provisions on racial equality. The six Soviet-bloc states (USSR, Byelorussian SSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukrainian SSR, and Yugoslavia) abstained (ostensibly) because the document was insufficiently detailed, especially with regard to the specific duties of individuals toward their states.
Although most of Africa, much of Asia, and parts of the Americas were still under colonial rule, the Universal Declaration had global endorsement. It received the votes of fourteen European and other Western states, nineteen states from Latin America, and fifteen from Africa and Asia. And the countries that later achieved independence were at least as enthusiastic in their embrace of the Declaration as those who voted for it in 1948. In Africa in particular, the Universal Declaration was liberally referenced and frequently quoted in independence-era constitutions.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration states its foundation: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The substantive bookend is Article 28: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” In between, Articles 2–27 lay out a comprehensive set of rights that have come to define what we mean by internationally recognized human rights. Article 2 recognizes the right to nondiscrimination. An extensive series of civil and political rights are recognized in Articles 3–15 and 19–21, including rights to life, liberty, and security of person; an array of legal protections and civil liberties; and the right to political participation. Articles 16–18 and 22–27 recognize a wide range of economic, social, and cultural rights, including rights to an adequate standard of living, social security, work, rest and leisure, family, education, and participation in the cultural life of the community. Article 29 indicates that people also have duties to their community that set parameters for the exercise of rights. Article 30, the final article, states that nothing in the Declaration may be interpreted as justifying any act that aims at the destruction of any of the enumerated rights in the Declaration.
Even today the Universal Declaration provides the most authoritative statement of international human rights norms. This vital document is reprinted in the appendix.

3. The Covenants

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not, in itself, legally binding. (It describes itself as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”) The Commission thus moved immediately to drafting a treaty to give binding international legal force to international human rights norms. The initial draft “Covenant on Human Rights” was quite short—eighteen articles, focusing exclusively on civil rights. After quite a bit of debate, however, the General Assembly directed the Commission to include economic, social, cultural, and political rights as well.
The new draft, though, was unwieldy. Furthermore, there was significant disagreement over monitoring and adjudication mechanisms and a proposed reporting procedure for economic, social, and cultural rights. Many on the Commission—mostly Western states—believed that the new draft should be divided into separate Covenants. Others—mostly from the postcolonial global South—disagreed, argu...

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