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International human rights law
Treaty law and international custom

Modern international human rights law developed in the wake of World War II with the adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). Since then the bulk of the international legal framework of human rights protection has emerged through treaties on specific rights or sets of rights intended to augment the Universal Declaration and make the rights contained within it legally binding and subject to monitoring and accountability mechanisms as treaty law. Most notably, the UN General Assembly adopted in 1966 the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Taken together with the Universal Declaration, these three documents are commonly referred to as the “International Bill of Human Rights”.

Other specialised treaties on human rights adopted at the universal level include the following:

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
  • Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [entered into force on 3 May 2008]
  • International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance [entered into force on 23 December 2010]

When states become parties to these treaties they commit themselves to not only refrain from interfering with the exercise and enjoyment of the rights, but also to take positive steps to protect their enjoyment as well as to restore them when they have been infringed. Furthermore, states parties have a duty to ensure that non-state actors do not impede the enjoyment of these rights.

In addition to treaty law, there exists a significant body of international custom, which binds every state regardless of whether they have adhered to a relevant treaty and even when no treaty exists in a particular area. Customary international law has two features: 1) the consistent “practice” of a wide range of states over a period of time, and 2) the belief that these actions are reflective of “law”. Whether or not a human right has become an obligation under customary international law is a complex question (although some studies exist). (1)

Mechanisms of implementation

Human rights conventions usually provide a monitoring body to scrutinise compliance and assist state parties in their implementation. For example, the UN Human Rights Committee exclusively monitors the implementation of the ICCPR. These specialised bodies examine periodic reports submitted by state parties.

To varying degrees the treaties create procedures for inter-state complaints, where one state can bring another state's actions to the attention of the supervisory body or the International Court of Justice, and communications from individuals detailing alleged violations can be considered under certain arrangements. Moreover, supervisory bodies can issue general comments on the interpretation of various provisions and subjects within the scope of the treaty as well as make informed pronouncements on situations of emergency or armed conflict with aspects falling in their remit (see the RULAC paper on Derogation from human rights treaties in situations of emergency). Obviously, a major issue in human rights law is the effectiveness of these treaty bodies in ensuring that states conform to their treaty obligations.

Regional human rights law

Concurrent with the development of international human rights law, significant instruments and mechanisms of protection developed at the regional level. In Europe, all members of the European Union and the Council of Europe have adhered to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. The Organization of American States has under its auspices the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Similarly, the African Union established the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to review state compliance with the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Recently, an African Court of Human and Peoples' Rights has been created. The 2004 Arab Charter on Human Rights was adopted by the Council of the League of Arab States, and a Committee of Experts on Human Rights should consider state reports.

Domestic human rights law

Most states have domestic laws, usually enshrined in constitutional documents, that provide for basic rights within the national legal system. Consequently, assessing human rights protection involves studying international, regional, and domestic commitments and mechanisms.

For questions or further discussion, contact Gilles Giacca at rulac (at)


 (1) See, for example, Hannum, H., "The Status of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in National and International Law", 25 Ga. J. Int'l & Comp. L. 287 (1995/96), excerpted/reprinted in 3 Health & Hum. Rts. 144 (1998) and 12 Interights Bull. 3 (No. 1, 1998/99).

Further Reading

Clapham, A., Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, UK, 2007, and its companion website.

Kälin, W., Müller, L. and Wyttenbach, J., The Face of Human Rights, Lars Müller Publishing, Germany, 2004.

Smith, R.K.M. and van den Anker, C.(eds.), The Essentials of Human Rights, Oxford University Press, UK, 2006.

Steiner, H.J., Alston, P., and Goodman, R., International Human Rights in Context: Laws, Politics and Morals, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, UK, 2008.

Tomuschat, C., Human Rights: Between Idealism and Realism, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, UK, 2008.

Human Rights Lexicon

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights website.

And the UN website on human rights.

See also:

The Academy experts meetings papers

Human Rights in Armed Conflict From the Perspective of the Contemporary State Practice in the United Nations (PDF below)

A comprehensive study on the resolutions adopted by the respective political bodies of the United Nations within the past decade with the aim to assess the position of states regarding the applicability of international human rights law during armed conflicts. The results of the study are accompanied with an Addendum containing the resolutions relevant to the subject matter of the inquiry and provide a solid basis for stating that the practice of states unequivocally supports the continued application of human rights law in times of armed conflict.



Keywords: Derecho internacional de los derechos humanos, droits de l'homme, droits humains,diritti umani, Menschenrechte