Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: June 2012

5 - Human rights


International human rights law is mainly treaty law (a characteristic of modern international law) with some human rights principles having passed into customary international law and some having acquired the status of general principles of law. Prior to the development of international human rights treaties, a relatively small number of states provided protection of human rights through their constitutions or specific domestic laws, but even fewer provided an effective legal system of remedies. There has been a parallel growth in domestic provision and international instruments for the promotion and protection of human rights, with important cross-over between the domestic and international. The focus of this chapter is on the international law of human rights. Nonetheless, some consideration is given to domestic law as a source of law in this area and also, crucially, as a source of remedy. Indeed, a principle common to all human rights treaties is that they may only be invoked by individuals when domestic instruments have failed to provide remedy for breaches of human rights.

In the first section we consider the content of international human rights law as rules, liberal or community values, and discourse. The next section explores the reasons for state compliance with human rights law. Here we might note the curious irony of this area of international law, namely, that individual states have nothing to gain by it.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Cronin, Bruce, Institutions for the Common Good: International Protection Regimes in International Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A clearly written and strongly argued book on the links between international stability and the creation of international protection regimes.
Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 2nd edition, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. An excellent book that takes human rights into the twenty-first century with a wide range of issues being discussed, including cultural relativism, humanitarian intervention, democracy and human rights, group rights and ‘Asian values’.
Forsythe, David P., Human Rights in International Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. An accessible and thorough treatment of the policy-making processes pertaining to human rights in the context of international relations.
Freeman, Michael, Human Rights, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002. An interdisciplinary account of human rights, with particular references to the social science, philosophy and law.
Gearty, Conor, Can Human Rights Survive?, The Hamlyn Lectures 2005, Cambridge University Press, 2006. Most enjoyable read of ‘the story of human rights’ with a warning against complacency and a lucid look at the future.
Gibney, Matthew J., The Ethics and Politics of Asylum, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. A well-argued work on the obligations of liberal democracies to asylum-seekers with an empirical focus on the USA, Germany, the UK and Australia.
Goodwin-Gill, , Guy, S., and Jane, McAdam, The Refugee in International Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Probably the best substantial textbook on refugee law with a clear international focus.
Rehman, Javaid, International Human Rights Law, London: Longman, 2003. A comprehensive and accessible textbook.
Risse, Thomas, Stephen, C. Ropp and Kathryn, Sikkink (eds.), The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. An evaluation of the impact of human rights norms articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the behaviour of national governments in five different regions of the world (i.e., Northern Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe), with a particular focus on internalisation.
Simpson, Brian, Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the European Convention, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. An astonishing historical account of the negotiations of the European Convention on Human Rights, with a particular focus on the role of Britain.
Steiner, Henry J., and Philip, Alston, International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. This book is unique in providing the ‘big picture’ of the ‘human rights movement’. Highly readable, it is a masterpiece in interdisciplinary scholarship and in critical legal thinking. A third edition is on its way.