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International Human Rights: Introduction

Use this guide to jump start your research for your International Human Rights class

Every Human Has Rights

Every Human Has Rights is a campaign to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Sponsored by a group called The Elders (a group that includes Nobel Peace Prize laureates Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu), this video gives you an idea of the scope of the Every Human Has Rights campaign:

What are Human Rights?

From the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights:

"Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law , general principles and other sources of international law. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups."

Universal and inalienable

"The principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. This principle, as first emphasized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, has been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, for example, noted that it is the duty of States to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems.

All States have ratified at least one, and 80% of States have ratified four or more, of the core human rights treaties, reflecting consent of States which creates legal obligations for them and giving concrete expression to universality. Some fundamental human rights norms enjoy universal protection by customary international law across all boundaries and civilizations.

Human rights are inalienable. They should not be taken away, except in specific situations and according to due process. For example, the right to liberty may be restricted if a person is found guilty of a crime by a court of law."

Interdependent and indivisible

"All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education , or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination, are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others." 

Equal and non-discriminatory

"Non-discrimination is a cross-cutting principle in international human rights law. The principle is present in all the major human rights treaties and provides the central theme of some of international human rights conventions such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  

The principle applies to everyone in relation to all human rights and freedoms and it prohibits discrimination on the basis of a list of non-exhaustive categories such as sex, race, colour and so on. The principle of non-discrimination is complemented by the principle of equality, as stated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.'”

Both Rights and Obligations

"Human rights entail both rights and obligations. States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights. The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the individual level, while we are entitled our human rights, we should also respect the human rights of others."

Researching International Human Rights

                                                                           Universal Declaration of Human Rights


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.

International Human Rights research encompasses different court systems, regions, and treaties and is heavily dependent on web resources and periodicals. Treatises and secondary sources can provide valuable background on a particular area of human rights concerns and are invaluable in locating relevant caselaw. Treaties and other international agreements are vital as is identifying each country’s status vis-a-vis the treaty or agreement. Reports detailing conditions in the countries involved are also useful.


To begin research, identify the issue(s) and the states involved. From there, determine whether any IGOs may govern the particular issue for these states. Any treaties or international agreements which speak to these states for the issues involved must be identified and analyzed. Background information and current reports may illuminate the situation and identify related concerns. In addition to these steps, relevant secondary sources may identify other important materials, in the form of decisions, published material, or documents.


Most of the Law Library's human rights material are located on the third floor, and in the Reserve Collection behind the Circulation Desk. These materials are grouped around the call number K3200. The sources of international law, including treaties and rules governing intergovernmental organizations, are shelved in the KZ call numbers. 

If you have any questions, please use the contact information at the right, drop by or call the Reference Desk (ext. 1458) or use the chat box, also located to the right. We welcome any suggestions on how to improve this resource.

Good luck with your research!


Introduction created by Kate Irwin-Smiler and has been updated by Renee Y. Rastorfer

Keep Up To Date with Amnesty International

Amnesty International

From Amnesty International's web site: "Amnesty International is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights for all."



Renee Rastorfer
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Keep Up To Date With Human Rights Watch

From the Human Rights Watch website:  "Human Rights Watch is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world."


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Human Rights by Country

Two useful resources, one from the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the other from the U. S. State Department with links to reports documenting the status of human rights in various countries. These can be used to gain an overview, but also, leads, to specific instances of human rights abuses.

Use this guide to become successful in your first year Lawyering Skills class and throughout your time here at Western New England University School of Law!