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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: April 2019

9 - Human rights



In the 19th century international law did not concern itself with protecting the gamut of political, civil, economic, social and group interests and rights considered important in the 20th and early 21st centuries. States were required to protect individuals in a limited number of areas such as piracy, slavery, treatment of sick and wounded soldiers, and prisoners of war. The dominance of the concept of sovereignty precluded any State or institution from using international law to intervene in the domestic affairs and jurisdiction of a State. In 1905, when Lassa Oppenheim published his first edition of International Law, considered to be one of the most significant English-language treatises on the subject, he stated that the rights of human beings were not a part of international law.

The end of World War I started an important shift towards the idea that groups of individuals had to be protected, although the language of human rights was not used widely. The League of Nations in 1919 focused on groups and minorities in particular. Article 22 of the 1919 Covenant of the League of Nations established rudimentary provisions for the self-determination of people who, because of war, had stopped being governed by their own State. It included an obligation on the part of the Mandatory Powers acting on behalf of the League to guarantee the freedom of conscience and religion. The Treaty of Versailles, signed at the end of World War I, established the foundations of the International Labour Organization (ILO) to support the rights of individuals to associate and promote better standards of working conditions.

Contemporary human rights discourse, however, is predominantly founded upon developments that began with the end of World War II. A declaration on 1 January 1942, referred to as the Declaration by United Nations, committed 26 States, including Australia, to preserving ‘human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands’. This Declaration was later followed by the Charter of the United Nations (UN Charter), which in art 1(3) identified the promotion and encouragement of respect for human rights as one of the central purposes for establishing the United Nations (UN). An important postwar development in the human rights discourse was the adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

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Alston, Philip and Goodman, Ryan, International Human Rights, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013
Bailey, Peter, The Human Rights Enterprise in Australia and Internationally, LexisNexis Butterworths, Sydney, 2009
Charlesworth, Hilary, Writing in Rights: Australia and the Protection of Human Rights, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2002
Gerber, Paula and Castan, Melissa (eds), Contemporary Perspectives on Human Rights Law in Australia, Thomson Reuters, Sydney, 2013
McBeth, Adam, Nolan, Justine and Rice, Simon, The International Law of Human Rights, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2017