Human rights interests have worked a revolutionary change upon many of the classic rules of international law as a result of the realization by states in their international practice that they have a deep interest in the way other states treat their own citizens. Critically discuss.

If we get into the historical perspectives, international law did not concern itself with the rights of individuals. The concept of sovereign equality that emerged from the Treaty of Westphalia¹ was not compatible with concerns posed from human rights. A part of this development was because States were seen as sovereigns who were free to exercise control over their territory without any interference from beyond their borders. And the conduct of States towards their subjects was an important component of this sovereign authority. Hence, the legitimate concerns of other States were therefore seen as restricted to the welfare of their own citizens abroad. Back in the early days when few individuals travelled across State borders, this was hardly a concern. It is worth mentioning that the diplomatic agents of States were the most common example of such individuals and they were accorded privileges and protections by the host State. 

Over time, this veil of sovereignty has slipped as international has evolved to extend protection to individuals and to protect their human rights even within their own States. This is a relatively recent phenomenon and in the 1930s, the situation was much different. At that time, the British government decided against protesting the treatment meted out to Jews in Germany because it felt that this would amount to challenging Germany’s sovereignty. It can be stressed that the aftermath of World War II and the creation of the United Nations changed the attitudes of States themselves. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights along with the two international covenants that gave binding force to its provisions was a watershed moment in the history of international law.

With time, as attitudes changed, it became accepted by States that they owed duties to their citizens. And this led to the adoption of certain common standards for the welfare and protection of the human rights of their citizens. The proliferation of human rights treaties and other instruments has continued to this day with the result that certain rules of international law have changed greatly. Today, Individuals enjoy the right to bring complaints under many human rights treaties. A best example of this is the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights². In this sense, it must be borne in mind that individuals are no longer merely objects of international law but also enjoy certain inalienable rights.

Finally, the development that has taken places as regards the prohibitions against torture and genocide have become jus cogens norms of international law and are thereby inviolable and international human rights law protects women, children and refugees just to name a few vulnerable groups. The reason for such a shift in States attitudes stems from the growing realisation that citizens are assets which must be protected, and in some circumstances they may need to be protected from their own States. After such realisation, a broad consensus has been reached between States that the comity of international relations cannot be maintained in a world where citizens are treated differently by different States and that compromises on human rights for the sake of international relations are not only justifiable to their own citizens but nor do they bode well for future stability and international harmony.


¹ See, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/westphal.asp, accessed on 16.04.13

² See, http://www.refworld.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/rwmain?docid=3ae6b3bf0, accessed on 16.04.13


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