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Rights and justice in international relations
Rights and justice in international relations

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2.1.1 Where did the attempt to define notions of rights internationally come from?

To some extent, this ideology of rights was new because it was expressed at the international level with new vigour, with the horrors of the Second World War and the calculated extermination of Jews, gypsies and others in mind. The discourse of individual rights had a stronger impact on international politics than at any time previously, as did the notion of a right to national self-determination. Yet this new departure for international politics also built upon ideas about rights that had been around for a long time in thinking about the relation between individuals and the state. I shall concentrate here on human rights applied to individuals, rather than on the national right to self-determination.

The Congress of Vienna of 1815 had contained an obligation on states to abolish the slave trade, which represented a major attempt at international humanitarianism and standard setting. The 1907 Hague Conventions and 1926 Geneva Conventions attempted to regulate the humanitarian conduct of war. Nonetheless, at that time such measures were understood as framed by the principle and norm of state sovereignty, and were tempered by exclusionary Western beliefs about ‘standards of civilisation’. After the horrors of the First World War, there was a move to institutionalise international co-operation in the League of Nations. Although the League of Nations, inspired by UK and US liberal internationalists, had ‘no explicit human rights provision, the underlying assumption was that its members would be states governed by the rule of law and respecting individual rights’ (Brown, 2001, p. 606).

After the Second World War, the Universal Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (10 December 1948 – now known as World Human Rights Day), with no votes against and seven abstentions (the Soviet Union and its allies, South Africa and Saudi Arabia). Subsequently, all but Saudi Arabia have adopted the Declaration.