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Human rights and law
Human rights and law

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3.3 What were the fundamental human rights which required protection?

Earlier in this course you explored why certain rights were considered to be basic human rights. These can be described as those rights of individuals or groups relating to human dignity and fundamental freedoms, which require legal protection from adverse interference by the state, where those rights derive from the fact of being human. Such rights can be traced back to two aspects of international law, namely customary international law and treaty law. The former derives from the customs adopted between nations. They follow from a sense that they have, over time, become accepted as part of international law even though never formally reduced into writing. You may think that there is a sense of analogy with some aspects of the English common law. Treaty law, on the other hand, relates to those treaties (formal documents) which nations have negotiated and signed with the intention of binding the state to an international agreement to achieve the standards defined within the treaty. For instance, one of the first treaties to follow the conclusion of the Second World War opens with a recitation:

We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small …

(United Nations Charter)

These words were written in 1948 when horrific memories of the genocide, cruelty, torture and barbarity of war were still fresh in the minds of the peoples of the world, even in countries which had not been directly affected. You may feel that their aim has not been achieved, as war still rages in many countries and wide-scale human rights abuses still occur. A greater awareness and acceptance of rights on the international stage has occurred, however, even though many feel that respect and enforcement mechanisms are, on occasion, lacking.