Sources of Human Rights
Human rights are inherent to all individuals, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, or other characteristics. These rights are safeguarded by various sources, including international treaties, customary law, domestic legislation, and judicial decisions. Let’s delve into these sources in detail:
1. International Treaties and Conventions
International human rights treaties are fundamental sources of human rights law. They are legally binding agreements that establish specific rights and obligations for states that are parties to them. Some key treaties include:
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): Adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the UDHR sets out a broad range of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. It serves as a foundational document for subsequent human rights instruments.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): This treaty, adopted in 1966, guarantees civil and political rights such as the right to life, freedom of expression, and the prohibition of torture. Notable case law includes “Habeas Corpus in Emergency Situations” (Colombia v. Peru, 1950).
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR): Adopted alongside the ICCPR in 1966, this treaty addresses economic, social, and cultural rights like the right to work and the right to education.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW): Enacted in 1979, CEDAW focuses on gender equality and prohibits discrimination against women. Cases include “A.T. v. Hungary” (2012).
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): Enacted in 1989, the CRC protects the rights of children. Notable cases include “X v. Argentina” (2009) regarding access to abortion for adolescents.
2. Customary International Law
Customary international law consists of practices that have developed over time and are widely accepted as legally binding, even in the absence of formal treaties. For instance:
Genocide Convention: Customary law now considers genocide a crime under international law, largely due to the Genocide Convention (1948). The case of “Prosecutor v. Akayesu” (1998) before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda solidified this principle.
3. Domestic Legislation
National constitutions and laws play a crucial role in protecting human rights within a country. These laws can reflect international human rights standards and provide mechanisms for their enforcement. Case law often arises from constitutional challenges and interpretations:
Brown v. Board of Education (1954, United States): The landmark case that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, based on the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
4. Regional Human Rights Instruments and Courts
In addition to international treaties, regional human rights instruments and courts have emerged to address specific human rights challenges within their respective geographic areas. These regional mechanisms are crucial in complementing and reinforcing global human rights standards. Here are some key regional instruments and notable cases:
European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR): Established in 1950, the ECHR is one of the most prominent regional human rights treaties. It safeguards a wide range of civil and political rights across Europe. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is responsible for interpreting and enforcing the ECHR.
Notable Case – Dudgeon v. the United Kingdom (1981): This case is a landmark example of how regional human rights courts can influence national laws. It struck down Northern Ireland’s laws criminalizing homosexuality, asserting that such laws violated the right to respect for private life under the ECHR.
Inter-American System: In the Americas, the Organization of American States (OAS) oversees human rights through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). The American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) is the regional treaty governing human rights in the Americas.
Notable Case – Velásquez Rodríguez v. Honduras (1988): This case set a significant precedent by establishing the principle of state responsibility for human rights violations. It led to the development of the doctrine of “continuous violations” of human rights.
African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights: Adopted in 1981, the African Charter emphasizes both individual and collective rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights oversee its implementation.
Notable Case – Social and Economic Rights Action Centerand the Center for Economic and Social Rights v. Nigeria (2001): This case highlighted the importance of socio-economic rights in Africa and the obligations of states to protect and fulfill these rights. It contributed to the jurisprudence on economic and social rights in the African human rights system.
5. Judicial Decisions
Court decisions, whether at the national or international level, are pivotal in the interpretation, application, and enforcement of human rights. They set legal precedents and provide guidance on how human rights should be protected and upheld. Here are further insights into this source:
International Court of Justice (ICJ): The ICJ is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations and addresses disputes between states. While its primary focus is not individual human rights, it occasionally interprets human rights law in cases involving states.
Supreme Courts and National Courts: National courts, particularly supreme courts, play a crucial role in applying and interpreting human rights standards within the domestic legal framework. These courts often hear cases that involve constitutional challenges related to human rights.
Notable Case – Roe v. Wade (1973, United States): This landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, primarily based on the right to privacy. It has had a profound impact on reproductive rights globally and continues to be a subject of debate.
Notable Case – Soering v. United Kingdom (1989): In this case, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the extradition of a suspect to the United States, where he faced the death penalty, would violate the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment. This decision influenced extradition practices involving the death penalty.