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INTRODUCTION TO INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW

If you’re an activist or organizer working to protect human rights, you may have heard about the human rights legal framework. If not, you should know that there are international bodies who work to protect the basic rights that all human beings are entitled to – including the right to protect human rights!

For activists, there are important strategic advantages to knowing how to navigate this framework. For example – if your group is campaigning against discrimination against women, what institutions might work on this issue? Where do they operate, and what resources or assistance could they provide for your campaign? Finally, how might these kinds of questions and their answers influence your resistance strategy?

This page is designed to give you the basic knowledge to navigate the human rights legal framework! While the information here is surface-level, each section includes links to supplemental material in case you want to learn more about a particular topic.

We’ll help you answer the following questions:

  1. What is international law?
  2. What is the international human rights framework?
  3. What are the core international human rights instruments?
  4. Who are human rights defenders?

Note: Infographics explaining this information are at the bottom of this page. English and Spanish language versions are available.

1. What is international law?

Public international law* consists of rules and principles of general application dealing with the conduct of states and of international organizations and with their relations inter se, as well as with some of their relations with persons, whether natural or juridical.

In simpler terms, international law devises a framework where States are the central actors governing the international community. It defines States’ legal responsibilities in their conduct with each other, with international organizations (governmental or nongovernmental), within their boundaries, and with individuals.

International law includes a variety of topics. These can include human rights, disarmament, refugees, migration, statelessness, the treatment of prisoners, the use of force, the conduct of war, and the environment.

*As private international law is not relevant to the human rights framework, we will not cover this topic.

1.1. Where does international law come from?

1.1.1. Primary sources of law

Primary sources include treaty law and customary international law.

a) Treaties

What is a treaty?

A treaty (also known as a covenant or convention) is an international agreement between States in written form and governed by international law. You can think of treaties as contractual agreements under which the agreeing parties take on legal obligations and risk legal consequences if they violate treaty provisions.

Treaties can be either bilateral (between two States) or multilateral (between more than two State parties). The core human rights treaties are multilateral.

Treaties can also be between states and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs).

How do treaties become law?

States begin with negotiations to come to a consensus on what treaty terms should be. States must next express their “consent to be bound” (or their willingness to undertake legal rights and obligations) by the treaty provisions. This commonly occurs when a state signs and ratifies a treaty, although other methods are possible. Once a state has consented, it is considered a party to the treaty and must perform the treaty terms in good faith. Treaties are only binding upon the consenting parties.

How are treaties enforced after they’re ratified?

The time when treaties become enforceable depends on the domestic legal procedures of each state party. Some states are immediately bound to the treaty once it is ratified. In this case, the treaty is self-executing. Other states may require the passage of domestic legislation to implement the treaty terms. In this case, the treaty is non-self-executing.

If a legal dispute arises – for example, if a state breaches (or violates) a treaty term – a court or tribunal may settle the matter. There is no single court that can settle all matters of international law. Instead, states must consent to the jurisdiction (or authority) of a court before they are bound to its rulings.

States can consent to some courts when they become member states of the intergovernmental organization that created the court. Member states of the UN are bound to the rulings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which was created under the UN Charter. Likewise, member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) are bound to the rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) on human rights violations.

For more information, visit: Understanding international law and treaties.

b) Customary International Law

What is customary international law?

Customary law results from a general and consistent practice of states from a sense of legal obligation. State practice must be widespread and followed most of the time. Simply put, certain practices can become customary law if states believe they are legally bound to those practices. These practices can take the form of action or non-action.

What is the legal effect of customary law?

Customary law differs from treaty law because it binds all states to agreed-upon norms. This can apply to both international matters and domestic matters, as with the ban on states’ use of torture.

Where do customary norms come from?

Customary norms can come from state practices themselves, or from general statements of the law (such as UN General Assembly resolutions). Customary practices can also be codified into treaty law, as the Convention Against Torture (CAT) did with the customary ban on the use of torture.

For more information, visit: Overview of customary international law.

Peremptory Norms (Jus cogens)

Peremptory norms are customary norms that absolutely prohibit certain state actions including slavery, torture, genocide, crimes of aggression, and crimes against humanity. There is no limit to what can be considered jus cogens, and these norms may change in the future.   

1.1.2. Secondary sources of international law 

Secondary sources can help provide guidance in a legal dispute when treaty or customary law do not. Supplementary rules may include general principles of law, judicial decisions and teachings of the most highly qualified publicists.

2. What is the international human rights framework?

The international human rights framework is comprised of many different entities operating at different levels and regions of the world. These entities may share the same goal(s), but the way they operate may vary significantly. You could consider the ‘framework’ the collective groups and institutions that work to protect and protect human rights, whether worldwide, in a particular group of countries, or within a country.

In this section, we will discuss the different systems in place that are most relevant to human rights defenders (HRDs). At the international level, the United Nations promotes and protects human rights through multiple bodies. At the regional level, several bodies exist that address human rights within specific regions.

Please note that while we talk about the framework, it is not always limited to legal institutions: civil society members, activists and nongovernmental organizations all play an essential role in promoting and protecting human rights.

2.1. United Nations Human Rights System

The United Nations (UN) was founded in 1945 with the ratification of the UN Charter, which outlines the purposes and principles of its work. The UN addresses a broad range of global issues, some of which include human rights, peace and security, climate change, and sustainable development. It consists of six main organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the UN Secretariat.

The UN Charter references “human rights” seven times, making the promotion and protection of human rights a key purpose and guiding principle of the UN.

The UN’s human rights work takes place in some key institutions:

  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • Human Rights Council
  • Special Procedures
  • Human Rights Treaty Bodies

For more information, visit:
UN Charter
Overview: How does the UN promote and protect human rights?
Infographic: The United Nations System

2.1.1. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spearheads the UN’s efforts to promote and protect human rights.

The OHCHR’s thematic priorities (or areas of focus) include the following: 

  • Strengthening international human rights mechanisms,
  • Enhancing equality and countering discrimination,
  • Combating impunity and strengthening accountability and the rule of law,
  • Integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere,
  • Widening the democratic space, and 
  • Early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity.

The OHCHR has four major divisions:

  • The Research and Right to Development Division (RRDD);
  • The Human Rights Treaties Division (HRTD);
  • The Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division (FOTCD); and
  • The Human Rights Council and Special Procedures Division (HRCSPD).

For more information, visit:
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Here is a visual map outlining the OHCHR’s organization.

2.1.2. Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was established in 2006 to promote and protect human rights worldwide. The Council’s thematic issues include freedom of association and assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of belief and religion, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the rights of racial and ethnic minorities.

Some key elements of the UNHRC are important for civil society:

  • The Universal Periodic Review is a mechanism that assesses the human rights situations in all 193 UN member states with the participation of HRDs and NGOs.
  • The Complaints Procedure allows individuals and organizations to bring complaints about human rights violations to the UNHRC’s attention. 
  • The Special Procedures are independent human rights experts who report and advise on human rights from a thematic (issue-based) or country-specific perspective. 

For more information, visit: More on the UN Human Rights Council.

Special Procedures

Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

The UNHRC established the Special Rapporteur in 2000 as a Special Procedure to aid in the     implementation of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (discussed below).

The mandate of the Special Rapporteur is to:

  • Seek, receive, examine and respond to information on the situation and rights of HRDs,
  • Establish cooperation and conduct dialogue with Governments and other actors on the promotion and effective implementation of the Declaration, and
  • Recommend effective strategies better to protect HRDs and follow up on these recommendations. 

The Special Rapporteur submits annual reports to the UNHRC and General Assembly, undertakes country visits, and receives individual complaints regarding allegations of human rights violations.

The current Special Rapporteur as of June 2014 is Michel Forst.

For more information, visit: More on the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

2.1.3. Human rights treaty bodies

There are nine core international human rights treaties. These treaties have established the fundamentals rights and duties under international human rights law, and have influenced the development of regional and local human rights frameworks.

Each of these instruments has established a committee of experts to monitor states as they implement a treaty provisions.

View the table below for a list of the core treaties and their treaty bodies.

Core InstrumentTreaty Body
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial DiscriminationCommittee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural RightsCommittee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
The International Covenant on Civil and Political RightsHuman Rights Committee
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against WomenCommittee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or PunishmentCommittee against Torture
Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture
The Convention on the Rights of the ChildCommittee on the Rights of the Child
The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their FamiliesCommittee on Migrant Workers
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with DisabilitiesCommittee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced DisappearanceCommittee on Enforced Disappearances

For more information, visit:  The United Nations Human Rights Treaty System.

2.2. Regional human rights systems

Regional human rights bodies are intergovernmental organizations that monitor, promote and protect human rights in various regions of the world. These bodies can, in part, bind states to regional human rights treaties and settle disputes peacefully, similarly to how the UN system functions. For example, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights monitors state compliance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

View the table below for a list of major regional bodies, the instruments they monitor, and their parent organizations.

Parent OrgRegional InstrumentRegional Body
African UnionAfrican Charter on Human and Peoples’ RightsAfrican Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
African UnionAfrican Charter on Human and Peoples’ RightsAfrican Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights
League of Arab StatesArab Charter on Human RightsArab Human Rights Committee
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)Cha-Am Hua Hin Declaration on the Intergovernmental Commission on Human RightsASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights
Council of Europe (COE)European Convention on Human RightsEuropean Court of Human Rights
Council of Europe (COE)1961 – European Social Charter
1988 – Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter
1996 – Revised European Social Charter
European Committee of Social Rights

These bodies all work to promote and protect human rights in their regions, but may differ in terms of their mandates, activities, and scope. The extent of their work depends on how much member states prioritize human rights, and how many resources are allocated to their work.

For more information, visit: More on the regional human rights bodies.

3. What are the core international human rights instruments?

3.1. International Bill of Human Rights

The International Bill of Human Rights provides the foundation for international human rights law. The instruments included in the Bill enshrine many basic human rights, and create mechanisms to supervise states’ implementation of these rights.

It consists of three primary documents: 

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and 
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its two Optional Protocols.

For more information, visit: Fact Sheet: The International Bill of Human Rights

3.1.1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The UN General Assembly adopted this text on December 10, 1948 – what we now know as Human Rights Day. The UDHR was drafted in response to the atrocities of the Second World War as a complement to the UN Charter. The UDHR sets the standard of achievement for the state of human rights.

The UDHR recognizes fundamental human rights, but is not itself legally binding since it is not a treaty. It reflects a political commitment of the international community to honor human rights. However, many rights laid out in the UDHR were either enshrined in later human rights treaties or emerged as customary law.

The UDHR sets out core principles of human rights that influenced subsequent human rights treaties. These principles include:

  • Universality,
  • Interdependence and indivisibility, 
  • Equality and non-discrimination. 

The UDHR also articulates the relationship between individuals and states within the human rights system. Individuals are rights-owners who benefit from human rights. States are the duty-bearers who have a responsibility to protect individual rights.

Read the UDHR here. 

For more information, visit:
“Civil Resistance, Human Rights and International Law”
The Foundation of International Human Rights Law

3.1.2. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The ICCPR enshrines the fundamental rights to life (art. 6); freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (art. 7); freedom from slavery, servitude or formed or compulsory labor (art. 8); freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention (art. 9); freedom of movement and freedom to choose a residence (art. 12); freedom of thought, conscience and religion (art. 18) and freedom of opinion and expression (art. 19); to peacefully assembly (art. 21) and freedom of association (art. 22).

Article 28 establishes the Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the rights set out in the ICCPR.

Read the ICCPR here.

3.1.3. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The ICESCR guarantees the fundamental rights to work (art. 6), the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work (art. 7); form and join trade unions (art. 8); social security, including social insurance (art. 9); the widest possible protection and assistance for the family, especially mothers, children and young persons (art. 10); an adequate standard of living (art. 11); the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (art. 12); education (arts. 13, 14); and take part in cultural life (art. 15).

Read the ICESCR here.

3.2. Other core instruments

Other core human rights instruments cover a range of issues. These include the following:

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families ()ICMW
  • International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  • Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OP-CAT)

For more information on these instruments, visit here.

4. Who are human rights defenders (HRDs)?

4.1. Am I a human rights defender?

If you work to advance, campaign or advocate for human rights in your community, then the answer is probably yes!

According to the UN, human rights defenders (HRDs) are “people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights.” More specifically, HRDs are “individuals, groups and associations… contributing to… the effective elimination of all violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of peoples and individuals.”

4.2 What do human rights defenders actually do?

HRDs are extremely diverse in their work, their strategies and their areas of focus within human rights. Broadly speaking, HRDs may work to: 

  • Address human rights on behalf of individuals or groups throughout the world and at all levels;
  • Collect and disseminate information on human rights violations
  • Support victims of human rights violations
  • Work to secure accountability and impunity;
  • Support good governance practices;
  • Aid in the implementation of human rights treaties; and
  • Educate and train people on human rights.

For more information, visit:
Who is a human rights defender?
What challenges do HRDs face?

4.3. What is my legal status as a human rights defender?

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders clarifies the legal status of HRDs within the international human rights framework. It was adopted in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to the Declaration, everyone has a duty to support and protect HRDs in their work – not just states.

The Declaration reaffirms the human rights of HRDs (and the obligations of states), and tailors these rights to their specific situation. The rights and protections included the Declaration were intentionally drawn from fundamental human rights enshrined in other instruments, such as the ICCPR.

Some pertinent rights of HRDs include the rights to:

  • Be protected; 
  • Freedom of assembly; 
  • Freedom of association; 
  • Access and communicate with international bodies; 
  • Freedom of opinion and expression; 
  • Protest; 
  • Develop and discuss new human rights ideas; 
  • Effective (legal) remedies;
  • Access funding; and 
  • Defend human rights.

Read the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders here

For more information, visit:
Commentary to the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.Fact Sheet: Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights.

Infographics

Download and share our infographics on international human rights law! English and Spanish versions available below.

In English:

International Human Rights Instruments
Human rights defenders
Entities of international human rights law

In Spanish:

Instrumentos internacionales de Derechos Humanos
Quienes son las personas defensoras de dechos humanos
Organismos internacionales de los Derechos Humanos
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