Human rights law is primarily concerned with protecting the internationally-guaranteed inherent rights of all people. Organizations working in this area promote these rights, and deal with violations. Modern international human rights law dates from World War II and its aftermath, but an understanding of earlier human rights considerations is important to grasp the structure of organizations and the international legal system.
Prior to the twentieth century, individuals had no internationally enforceable rights – only states had rights. This led to the conclusion that outsiders had only limited rights to interfere with a government’s treatment of its citizens. One of these rights was the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which authorized outside intervention when citizens were being treated so brutally as to “shock the conscience” of the international community. This traditional doctrine has informed the modern international community’s approach to international tribunals. Another situation which could lead to intervention was the signing of a treaty, in which a state agreed to have the subject matter of the treaty internationally regulated. Transgressions by a state against the citizens of another state were considered to be transgressions against the other state itself. This approach left stateless persons without remedy.
The United Nations Charter established the legal foundation for modern human rights law. The specific concerns included in that document are “international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character” and “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.” By ratifying this document most states have internationalized their domestic human rights concerns. Human rights law now recognizes inherent enforceable rights held by all people. Additionally, individual actors are now held responsible for their violations of human rights laws, rather than only governments.
Human rights are safeguarded by a spectrum of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). These organizations promulgate treaties, conventions and charters, protecting various rights of people in signatory countries. The most widely recognized of these organizations is the United Nations (UN). Various agencies and branches of the UN focus on specific human rights concerns. Regional IGOs with similar mandates include the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. These organizations set standards for state treatment of nationals through international agreements, and implicitly impose duties upon member states to act in accordance with those agreements. International courts such as the European Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Court on Human Rights enforce these agreements and duties. Jurisdiction in these courts is a complicated matter, which involves the willingness of the states in question to be governed by the courts.
Additionally, a wide variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) work to protect and promote human rights worldwide. Some organizations have a very limited scope of activity and interest, while others are more comprehensive. These organizations make findings of fact concerning actual conditions in various regions, and often provide relief and other assistance to suffering people.