What Is International Human Rights Law?

C. Mitchell

International human rights law is a collective term that includes any law, regulation, or treaty agreement that relates to how governments treat certain groups of individuals. Most international human rights laws concern discrimination, racial profiling, gender inequalities, and government-sanctioned violence or torture. Because the laws of each country are different, there is no single international human rights law. There are uniform human rights treaties at both global and regional levels that many countries have adopted, however, which lends a somewhat uniform legal landscape to some human rights areas.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines the rights listed in the charter of the United Nations.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines the rights listed in the charter of the United Nations.

Most of the developments in international human rights law are products of United Nations (UN) treaties and committee work. The United Nations is a international body made up of delegates from nearly 200 countries. UN delegates discuss global problems and look for ways to harmonize the laws of various countries on all sorts of issues. Human rights have traditionally been an area of concerted UN effort.

Human rights are a primary concern for many countries.
Human rights are a primary concern for many countries.

Perhaps the best known UN treaty is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This document was adopted in 1948. The UDHR sets out the basic rights that all human beings throughout the world should be able to enjoy. Among other things, the UDHR addresses civil rights, socio-economic rights, and cultural and political rights.

Shortly after the UDHR was approved by the UN General Assembly, the UN’s Human Rights Commission introduced a companion document, known as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Together, these two documents form what is known as the International Bill of Rights. Unlike a bill of rights signed and ratified by an original nation, however, the International Bill of Rights is not, on its own, enforceable. As enacted by the UN, it is little more than a guideline.

The difficulty with international law, and international human rights law particularly, is that there is no way to force uniform adoption. Each country makes its own laws, and implements its own standards. Entities like the UN exist to encourage countries to adopt similar regulations. It can condition membership on ratification. The UN cannot, however, tell a country how to ratify, or in any way force a country’s hand in making its laws compliant.

As a result, there is a somewhat patchwork body of human rights law when looking across the global landscape. Some countries have fully incorporated the International Bill of Rights and its supporting treaties and amendments into national law. Others have taken pieces, or adopted parts. Still others have modified their laws, but have done little to actually enforce any pro-human rights policies.

Human rights is a prominent concern for many countries. Civil rights abuses and government-endorsed discrimination is often one of the primary grounds for wars and political and military intervention in government affairs. Individual nations have, at times, formed their own human rights committees to report on the global human rights landscape. There are also three regional bodies devoted to exploring and enforcing human rights law.

All members of the European Union are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, and alleged violations of international human rights law are tried in a dedicated European Court of Human Rights. A similar system exists in Africa. Members of the African Union are compelled to follow the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, a document written by an African Commission group of the same name. Violations are to be tried in the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

In North and South America, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights enforces both the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights. These documents have been agreed to and ratified by all countries on both continents. Disputes and human rights litigation with respect to certain countries’ compliance are brought in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Some nations consider 'enhanced interrogation' to be torture, a violation of human rights.
Some nations consider 'enhanced interrogation' to be torture, a violation of human rights.

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Discussion Comments


Nations of the world have not succeeded in preventing human rights violations. Intervention has occurred in some cases such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, but in other cases intervention was too late and inadequate such as in Rwanda. There are eventually tribunals to try those who broke human rights law. But we need to do more to prevent them in the first place.


@burcinc-- International refugee law is a type of international human rights law that deals with the status and protection of refugees. The main law that relates to this is the treaty -- 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It basically defines refugee and outlines their rights.

Many countries are signatories of the convention. But as it is with other types of international human rights law, there isn't really a body organization that can enforce and supervise it. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is most active in refugee protection and rights.


Are laws and rules about refugees considered international human rights law? Can anyone tell me more about these laws and what they are?

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