Human Rights Treaties, Humanitarian Intervention & Political Mindsets

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  • 0:01 Human Rights & State…
  • 1:01 Universal Declaration…
  • 1:55 Two Key Treaties
  • 3:10 Humanitarian Intervention
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

The international community acknowledges the existence of certain universal human rights. In this lesson, you'll learn about how the international community seeks to enforce these rights and hold sovereign states accountable for their violation.

Human Rights & State Sovereignty

Meet Yuko. She works for a nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection of human rights across the globe. Human rights are the basic rights that are universally agreed to belong to all people regardless of their citizenship, economic, or social status.

Part of Yuko's job is to monitor sovereign states for human rights violations and report any violations to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is responsible for protection of human rights around the world. A major problem that Yuko and the UN face is the tension between the well-recognized concept of state sovereignty and the concept of universal human rights.

A sovereign state generally has the recognized right to manage its own internal affairs. This right of sovereignty can create problems when sovereign states violate human rights because it usually involves a state's internal affairs, such as laws that discriminate against certain races or ethnic groups. Let's take a look at how the international community attempts to reconcile this conflict.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

One of the most important tools in Yuko's arsenal is to compare the treatment of citizens against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and is considered a fundamental document on human rights. The declaration contains 30 articles outlining specific rights. Some of these rights include life, liberty, security of person, equality before the law, nationality, property ownership, association, assembly, freedom of thought, opinion, expression, religion, and conscience, just to name a few.

As Yuko knows, however lofty and aspirational the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, it is toothless because it is not law. No states are legally required to adhere to it. Yuko must turn to other tools with teeth - treaties.

Two Key Treaties

In the simplest of terms, you can think of a treaty as a legally binding agreement between two or more states. The United Nations has drafted nine separate treaties involving human rights that states must ratify and thereby become legally bound. For better or for worse, since states are sovereign, they have the right to reject any treaty, thereby refusing to be bound by it.

Two of the most important human rights treaties are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Each treaty became effective in 1976. The two treaties codify the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights codifies the civil and political rights of the declaration, while the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights codifies social and economic rights found in the declaration. These two treaties and the declaration are often collectively referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights.

Yuko and other human rights advocates can monitor signatory states to ensure that they are honoring their treaty obligations. If they do not, then there is a basis under international law to seek enforcement of the treaties.

Humanitarian Intervention

The biggest problem for Yuko and other advocates for human rights is enforcement - even if there is a treaty violation. Enforcement is difficult because enforcement requires interfering with the internal affairs of a state, which adversely affects its sovereignty. Other states are often reluctant to meddle in the affairs of their brethren even if there is a sound legal basis to do so, lest they receive similar treatment in the future.

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