Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

6 - The International Protection of Human Rights



The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted on 10 December 1948 emphasises that ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. While there is widespread acceptance of the importance of human rights in the international structure, there is considerable confusion as to their precise nature and role in international law. The question of what is meant by a ‘right’ is itself controversial and the subject of intense jurisprudential debate. Some ‘rights’, for example, are intended as immediately enforceable binding commitments, others merely as specifying a possible future pattern of behaviour. The problem of enforcement and sanctions with regard to human rights in international law is another issue which can affect the characterisation of the phenomenon. There are writers who regard the high incidence of non-compliance with human rights norms as evidence of state practice that argues against the existence of a structure of human rights principles in international law. Although sightmust not be lost of violations of human rights laws, such an approach is not only academically incorrect but also profoundly negative. The concept of human rights is closely allied with ethics and morality. Those rights that reflect the values of a community will be those with the most chance of successful implementation. Positive rights may be taken to include those rights enshrined within a legal system, whether or not reflective of moral considerations, whereas a moral right is not necessarily enforceable by law. One may easily discover positive rights. Deducing or inferring moral rights is another matter entirely and will depend upon the perception of the person seeking the existence of a particular right.

Rights may be seen as emanating from various sources, whether religion or the nature of man or the nature of society. The Natural Law view, as expressed in the traditional formulations of that approach or by virtue of the natural rights movement, is that certain rights exist as a result of a higher law than positive or man-made law. Such a higher law constitutes a universal and absolute set of principles governing all human beings in time and space.