Human Rights

Human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behaviour . They are commonly understood as inalienable, fundamental rights "to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being and which are "inherent in all human beings", regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status. They are applicable everywhere and at every time in the sense of being universal, and they are egalitarian in the sense of being the same for everyone. They are regarded as requiring empathy and the rule of law and imposing an obligation on persons to respect the human rights of others, and it is generally considered that they should not be taken away except as a result of due process based on specific circumstances; for example, human rights may include freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture and execution.

Is the right to vote human or civil?

Human rights are entitlements that are inherent to all human beings irrespective of their sex, age, religion, nationality, sexuality, place of residence, language, colour of skin or any other characteristic.

Human rights are universal (applicable to all human beings) and inalienable (they should not be taken away except in specific circumstances aſter due process; for example, liberty may be curtailed if an individual has been found guilty of a crime). The events of the Second World War led to the prioritising of human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 – the basis for the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950. The UDHR is widely acknowledged to be the foundation of international human-rights law. It is important to understand the tension between the concept of universal and inalienable rights on the one hand, and the sovereignty of the state on the other.

Of particular significance in the development of international law on human rights are the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals aſter the Second World War.

The Nuremberg trials established that all of humanity would be guarded by an international legal shield and that even a Head of State would be held criminally responsible and punished for aggression and Crimes Against Humanity. The right of humanitarian intervention to put a stop to Crimes Against Humanity – even by a sovereign against his own citizens – gradually emerged from the Nuremberg principles affirmed by the United Nations. 

In the immediate aſtermath of the Second World War there were two international tribunals to deal with those responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Europe by the Nazis and in the Far East by the Japanese. More commonly known as the Nuremberg Trials and the Tokyo Trials, these tribunals set the precedent for future war-crimes tribunals – and for the International Criminal Court. Such were the atrocities carried out by both regimes, it was felt that the perpetrators must be brought to justice. These trials were unprecedented because they were genuine international trials, not trials in one state under the legal system of one state. They can be considered controversial because they prosecuted individuals for crimes that were not a crime at the time they were committed.  Nonetheless, the view that some crimes are so abhorrent and heinous that they must be punished has been the thinking behind the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the ICC.

Origins and development of international law and institutions

Law within states applies to the relationship between the state and the individual or criminal law and the relationship between individuals or civil law

Law within states in enforced by institutions such as the courts and the police and it is likely to be codified in some form- i.e. there will be an agreed body of civil and criminal law but International law is essentially the rules governing relationships between states and there is considerable debate about the concept of international law, as law implies some sort of compulsion and higher authority, but in the international system there is no compulsion, because states are sovereign. International law is also  not codified – written out in one place,

There are however  a number of sources, including:

• treaties and conventions between states

• international custom – such as diplomatic immunity

• the general principles of law recognised by civilised nations – things that are illegal in national law are probably illegal in international law

• judicial decisions

• legal writings.

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice was founded in 1945 as the main arbitration organ of the United Nations. Based in The Hague in the Netherlands, the court adjudicates disputes between member states of the United Nations and makes judgments on issues brought to it by UN organisations and specialist agencies.

 2024 :The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered “immediate and effective measures” to protect Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip from the risk of genocide by ensuring sufficient humanitarian assistance and enabling basic services  The International Court of Justice is composed of 15 judges elected to nine-year terms of office by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council. The Court may not include more than one national of the same State.  

July 2024: The International Court of Justice (ICJ)  ordered Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories “as rapidly as possible” and make full reparations for its “internationally wrongful acts” in a sweeping and damning advisory opinion that says the occupation violates international law.

In a historic, albeit non-binding, opinion, the court found multiple breaches of international law by Israel including activities that amounted to apartheid.

International Criminal Court

Also based in The Hague, the International Criminal Court is a separate court to the ICJ and is not a part of the UN family of organisations. The ICC is responsible for investigating and putting on trial individuals who have been accused of some of the most horrific and heinous crimes in the world – genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the future, the crime of aggression will also come under the remit of this court. The ICC is a permanent court that replaces the ad hoc tribunals that have oſten been used to bring prosecutions against suspected war criminals and despots, for example aſter the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide of Rwanda. The standing nature of the ICC is meant to ensure that all tyrants who may have considered committing crimes will be deterred from doing so. The ICC was set up by the 1998 Rome Statute and came into force in 2002. The aim of the court is to work in addition to national courts, not to replace them. The ICC only tries a case where a national court system has not been willing or able to bring an individual to justice; the ICC is a court of last resort. 124 states have signed up to the Rome Statute but some countries are not bound by the full requirements of the court, including the USA, China, India and Israel. In October 2016, in a blow to the ICC, South Africa, Burundi and the Gambia announced that they were going to withdraw from the Rome Statute; other African countries may follow. This is because there is a perception among African countries that the ICC is biased against Africans. Most of the ICC’s investigations and trials have been of Africans, and arrest warrants have only ever been issued against Africans. According to some African governments, this makes the ICC look like a colonial organisation. Russia also looks likely to remove its signature from the Rome Statute, perhaps predictably as it may face punishment over the annexation of Crimea and its actions in the Syrian Civil War.

It was more than two years after its inaugural session before the ICC issued its first arrest warrants. Then, it was a further eight years before the court delivered its first judgment, finding Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo guilty of war crimes for conscripting child soldiers.

 Why isn't the United States involved?

The US argued that its soldiers might be the subject of politically motivated or frivolous prosecutions.

Various safeguards were introduced, and Bill Clinton eventually signed the treaty in one of his last acts as president but Congress never ratified it.

The Bush administration was adamantly opposed to the court and any dilution of US sovereignty in criminal justice, and the US threatened to pull its troops out of the UN force in Bosnia unless they were given immunity from prosecution by the ICC.

In a much-criticised decision, the UN Security Council voted on 12 July 2002 on a compromise that gave US troops a 12-month exemption from prosecution - renewed annually.

But the Security Council - prompted by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan - refused to renew the exemption in June 2004, two months after pictures of US troops abusing Iraqi prisoners shocked the world.

The court's operation is seen as weakened without US involvement. However, in particular cases, Washington has not ruled out co-operation with the court. President Joe Biden has ordered US intelligence agencies to share evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine with the court.

2024 Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan  pursues arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and three senior Hamas leaders. 

The ICC has no police force of its own to track down and arrest suspects. Instead it must rely on national police services to make arrests and seek their transfer to The Hague. 

In 2023, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova. The pair were accused of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children to Russian during Mr Putin's invasion of the country.

The warrant has caused issues with the Russian leader's global travel. He was forced to skip a BRICS summit in South Africa in 2023, after pressure grew on President Cyril Ramaphosa's government to detain Mr Putin if he arrived in the country.

In 2021, the ICC began a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority submitted evidence to the court of what it claims were war crimes committed by the Israeli military. A UN report found evidence of war crimes by both Palestinian group Hamas and the Israeli military.

March 2023, Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court  issued warrants of arrest for two individuals in the context of the war in Ukraine: Mr Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Ms Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova. 

Special UN tribunals

There have been two notable UN international tribunals that were the forerunners to the International Criminal Court. Following atrocities and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and the African state of Rwanda, the UN set up criminal tribunals or courts to punish the perpetrators. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993 to bring to justice those responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Balkans in the 1990s, including the genocide committed at Srebrenica. Likewise, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was set up as a response to the genocide and mass killings of 1994. The tribunal indicted 93 individuals, of whom 61 were sentenced for crimes.

European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)

The Council of Europe (not to be confused with the Council of the European Union or the European Council) was set up in 1949 in response to the human-rights abuses of the Holocaust. The ECHR aims to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. It currently has 47 member states (the only European country not a member is Belarus). All member states are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights (draſted in 1950), which is upheld by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) based in Strasbourg, France. The Council of Europe is not related to the European Union and nor is the ECHR (not to be confused with the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ). The Court, which came into being in 1959, is a court of last resort: individuals or groups who feel that their rights have been breached by a signatory state may appeal to the court to have their case heard if all other legal avenues have been exhausted. While the Court’s rulings are not directly enforceable, all signatory states have agreed under international treaty to uphold the ruling of the Court.

The Right to Vote

Until the twentieth century, the right to vote was regarded as a privilege to be earnt primarily through ownership of land and property, as well as being reserved exclusively for the male half of the population.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued in 1948 proclaimed in Article 21 that everyone ‘has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives’, and also that ‘The will of the people…shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.’ This approach has been adopted by other human rights documents, such as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In Hirst v UK (2005) the ECtHR ruled that a blanket ban on prisoners voting violated Article 3 in a case that David Cameron described as making him feel physically ill. After years of delay, finally in 2017, then justice secretary David Lidington proposed granting the vote to prisoners on temporary licence, which would affect around 100 prisoners at any one time.

Sources of authority, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) set out for the first time a set of rights that are applicable to all human beings. The UDHR is a remarkable achievement in that it was the first time that statesmen and women from different political, legal and cultural backgrounds agreed on a common set of fundamental rights that apply to all human beings. Although not legally binding, the declaration has been a significant document in developing human rights around the world. It led to a collection of covenants that seek to underpin human rights in the world. The UDHR has also been followed by further covenants, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both adopted in 1966.

Not all states signed up to the UDHR in 1948. Most notably, Saudi Arabia refused to sign on the grounds that the UDHR was incompatible with Islamic law. Saudi Arabia does not allow citizens to renounce their religion which would be considered a breach of their human rights as guaranteed by the UDHR. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, signed in 1990, was an attempt by Islamic countries to give their view on human rights from an Islamic perspective. Freedom of religion is a key tension between the Cairo Declaration and the UDHR.