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

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5.2 Human rights in the international arena

The UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted that the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. It further affirmed that human rights should be protected by the rule of law, that they were ‘essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations’, that these fundamental human rights include the equal rights between men and women, and that these rights represented ‘a common standard of achievement’. The Declaration also reminded member states of the UN that they had pledged themselves to promoting the observance of these rights.

The second half of the twentieth century saw an enormous growth of the rights discourse, whereby norms for universal domestic standards were elaborated. For instance, in 1966 the UN supplemented its 1948 Declaration with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Moreover, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was signed in 1948, and further UN human rights treaties include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965, and the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women of 1979. The UN's 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities also supplements its earlier Declaration; it amplifies the entitlements owing to members of minorities but does not contain prescriptions about the consequent duties of states.

Regional charters have also been made in Europe, Africa and America. The European Council set out the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950 under the headings of dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens' rights and justice. The European Commission on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights provide the machinery to enforce these instruments. The European Union (EU) included an article asserting respect for human rights in the Treaty of Amsterdam, which came into force for member states in 1999, and the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights was proclaimed at the Nice Summit in 2000. The EU also includes human rights clauses in its agreements with other countries. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights was adopted by the Organization of African Unity in 1981 and has 51 state signatories. The American Convention on Human Rights was adopted by the Organization of American States in 1969 and has been ratified by 25 countries.

The extension of rights since the 1960s has also been made to many forms of ‘group’ rights, including women's rights, gay rights, the rights of the child, and post-colonial group claims. Furthermore, there has been an increased focus in the rights discourse on social, economic and cultural rights, as well as on civil, legal and political rights. Most recently, UN agencies have talked of ‘mainstreaming’ rights in development work, peace and security operations, humanitarian relief and social programmes.

The primary practical benefits claimed for the rights discourse include enfranchisement, the extension of rights to groups which were previously socially excluded, and the recognition of an entitlement to complain about inhuman treatment. According to rights advocates, other benefits include the acknowledgement that hitherto silenced groups and oppressed minorities also have a voice, and facilitating socially inclusive policies. For its proponents, while the rights discourse may make a community unstable by legitimating social conflict, it forces institutions to justify themselves. More broadly, advocates of universal human rights argue that the introduction of rights has led to the legalisation of a normative order, whose intentions are to advantage the disadvantaged and lead to a lessening of civil and international conflict. However, in this course we would like to draw attention to the fact that there are costs and problems associated with rights and the progressive legalisation of the international order as well as benefits.