David P. Forsythe


Human Rights in International Relations


A summary by Marcel Stoessel

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Preparation for the special part of the international organization exam at the Graduate Institute of International Studies. Students are advised to read also An Introduction to the International Protection of Human Rights.

More scripts for students in international relations: http://www.stoessel.ch/hei


1 Introduction: HR in international relations


HR = fundamental moral rights of the person that are necessary for a life in human dignity

Even if inalienable, rights still have to be constructed and codified in the legal system

After 1945: HR = global international law. Evidence: UNC, universal and regional treaties, universal adherence to 1949 Geneva Conventions, UNHCHR, ad hoc international criminal tribunals, statute of Rome, HR regularly part of diplomacy

Liberalism = attention to personal rights

Classical liberalism = emphasis on hard law for personal rights; implementation through courts

Neo-Liberalism = emphasis both hard and soft law for personal welfare, not just for rights (morality beyond rights); implementation implies difficult political choices

Realism = attention to State interests and power

This book analyses competing liberal and realist perspectives & charts the enormous gap between legal theory and political behaviour


4 key theses:

2 Establishing HR standards


Philosophy of rights

While HR as such have become universal, every notion put forward in regard to HR is a contested concept within the West

Lack of agreement on sources and nature of fundamental personal rights. Which individuals should benefit? Should rights go beyond individuals? Origin of rights? Implementation?

Other regions and cultures have moral principles in favour of human dignity, but outside the HR discourse


An international politics of rights

Powerful Western States could advance or retard ideas about human beings

Welfare State in the West

League of Nations Covenant silent about HR, but LoN later developed social agencies and programmes (refugees, slave-like practises, etc.); minority rights in certain countries and territories became an international issue (democratic elections in the Saar, 1934)

United Nations Charter 1st treaty in history to recognize universal HR; connects HR with peace and Security (Art. 55). Contradiction: Affirmation of universal HR and reaffirmation of State sovereignty over domestic social issues

1941 FDR “four freedoms” speech: freedom of speech, of religion, from want, from fear


An international bill of rights

UDHR, 1948 (accepted by all countries except Saudi Arabia by 1990s)

ICCPR, 1966 (1976) & ICESCR (1976) with common Art. 1 (right to collective self-determination), around 140 parties by 1990s


Legal regimes without hegemonic leadership

USA compelled by domestic politics to abandon a position of leadership in the setting of IHR standards until Jimmy Carter


Beyond the International Bill of HR

UN General Assembly: adopted important conventions 1948 – 1989

ILO & UNESCO conventions

Four Geneva Conventions (1949); two additional protocols (1977), one of which expands humanitarian regulation to internal conflict

à No lack of global or universal humane standards in both peace and war


Continuing debates

Vienna Conference on HR (1993)

Agreement on universality put in question by a minority of States. Vienna Final Declaration: universal nature beyond question, but national and regional particularities and historical, cultural and historical backgrounds must be borne in mind

à Nothing in HR that makes it ipso facto unsuitable for other parts of the world

Most important critique from realists, who consider HR as an unfortunate and sentimental intrusion into inter-State power calculations. Central problem of contemporary international relations: how to reconcile the liberal framework of international human rights law with the widespread practise of realist foreign policy

3 Global Application of HR norms


Contradiction of norms in UNC and lack of enforcement mechanism à States remain judge and jury

Neither ICJ nor SC privileges HR at this point in time

Attempts at international implementation of HR (diplomatic pressure)

States may restrict their sovereignty in the name of HR à ECHR


Principal UN Organs


Security Council

Concerned with maintainance of international peace and security; enforcement measures Chapter VII.

Economic, social, cultural and humanitarian issues; recommendations Chapter VI.

1960-1991: Racism in southern Africa; human rights in armed conflict; armed intervention across international boundaries; armed supervision of election and plebiscites.

Post-1991: Security » increasingly also security of the person, not just military violence.

Examples: El Salvador from 1990; Iraqi government attacks on minorities 1991; Systematic rape, ethnic cleansing and other gross HRV in the former Yugoslavia 1992-1995; Widespread malnutrition and starvation in Somalia 1992 – 1994; Absence of liberal democracy and stability in Cambodia 1991 –1997; Absence of liberal democracy and economic well-being in Haiti 1993-1996; Genocide in Rwanda from 1994; Low-level conflict in Guatemala from 1996, …

à Essentially national rather than international issues (“Who governs?” and “How humanely?”), even no sometimes international dimensions

à Gap between Council resolutions endorsing HR with reference to Chapter VII and the lack of political will to accept casualties of military action (Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda)

à El Salvador, Namibia, Haiti, Mozambique, Guatemala: Improvements

à Cambodia: some improvements


Office of the Secretary-General

Represents the purposes of the organization as found in the Charter, including international cooperation on HR.

From Trygve Lie to Boutros Boutros Ghali: more and more active

Perez de Cuellar: deeply intrusive rights agreement in El Salvador

Boutros Boutros Ghali: Agenda for Development à democratic development based on civil and political rights. High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1993; José Ayala Lasso (weak), then Mary Robinson (strong). à Free SG in public diplomacy to focus on security issues

Post-1991: Spoken out more frequently and generally more active in the domain of HR; increasingly find HR intertwined with security


General Assembly, ECOSOC and ICJ

GA: Many treaties and “motherhood” resolutions; fewer resolutions about specific HR in specific situations

CW: Israel (Zionism a form of racism), South Africa. GA shrank the realm of State sovereignty by making specific HR situations in specific countries a part of routine

ECOSOC: Mailbox between GA and subsidiary bodies. Important decisions:

ICJ: Not a major imprint on the protection of IHR. Nicaragua, 1996.


Major subsidiary bodies


Human Rights Commission

Post-1991: not necessarily the prime UN body for HR anymore; but still center for traditional or routine HR diplomacy, in addition to SG office, UNHCHR

1945-1966: Drafting of International Bill of HR & specific Conventions; avoiding specific inquiries about specific rights in specific countries

1967-2001: From promotion to protection (southern Africa, Israel, Haiti, Greece)

Neither 1235 nor 1503 systematic, sure and impressive protections of specific rights for specific persons in specific countries. 1235: country investigators. Thematic investigators (more successful). 1503: confidential.

à UN HR Commission taken seriously, but outside, States are prepared to continue HRV

à Divorces from control of military, economic or diplomatic sanctions



Tripartite membership à less political obstruction

Around 170 treaties like: Freedom to associate in trade unions; freedom to bargain collectively; right to be free from forced labour

Reports reviewed by a committee of experts, then by a larger and more political body. ILO regular review process: polite diplomacy devoid of more stringent sanctions beyond public criticism

Special review procedure on freedom of association, regardless of consent to treaties

Urgent cases didn’t stop events in Poland, Chle…


High Commissioner for Refugees

Legal refugees according to PIL: individuals crossing an international boundary on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution; must be granted at least temporary asylum

Reality: Some people flee without being singled out individually for persecution; some are internally displaced

Post-1991: UNHCR focuses on repatriation rather than resettlement; not differentiate between legal refugees, war refugees, internally displaced

Increasing attention to HR problems causing the flight in the first place

Problematic: Protection and relief to those who had broken normal relations with their governments


Treaty-specific bodies


Human Rights Committee

Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, around 140 parties in 1999

HRC composed of independent experts

Post-1991: More towards maximalist view (check if State was in compliance) as opposed to minimalist view (dialogue)

Some Western States have adapted their legislations, but US Senate Foreign Relations Committee challenged HRC’s right to pass judgment on US reservations, understandings


Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, almost 140 parties in 1999

Incompetent supervisory body replaced by independent Committee of Experts in 1986

Few States pay serious and sustained attention to Covenant

Reports: Often more formal


Other Treaty Mechanisms

Control Committees under:

à States don’t react affirmatively and quickly


International Humanitarian Law

Everywhere politically difficult to put a nation’s soldiers in harm’s way and then prosecute them for international crimes

Geneva Conventions (1949) & Additional Protocol I (1977): Neutral State should oversee application of rules. Reality: ICRC does its best to do the job



à UN increased commitment to liberal values centering on personal HR in IR, but commitment seems to be somewhat pro forma since States insist on their independence and freedom from authoritative international supervision on rights issues

4 International criminal courts


Historical background

First international tribunal after WWII in Nuremberg and Tokyo.

Claim: victor’s justice; some ex post laws applied (crimes against humanity [including genocide]; crimes against peace)

Punishment, fact-finding, but no credible threat for sure prosecution

Never used (Hungary 1956, Afghanistan 1979, Grenada 1983, Panama 1991, Iraq/Kuwait 1991, El Salvador 1991, South Africa 1994) until ad hoc tribunals

National trials (universal jurisdiction) only held in France and Israel before 1990’s + Denmark, Switzerland (former Yugoslavia) à rare

à Continuing strength of nationalism


Conceptual background

Liberals: States bound by international standards of HR in both peace and war, which includes criminal prosecution

Basic conflict: Impede or help peace and democratisation with criminal proceedings?

Garten, classical liberal: frontal assault will not work in many cases, other means of protecting HR (like truth commission); contextual analysis of gains and losses of a judicial approach

Neier, neo-liberalist: Justice in court, supported by NGOs and HR lawyers



Established by SC, required all UN member States to cooperate with the tribunal

War crimes

Crimes against humanity


80+ persons indicted, 7 convictions

à More Garten than Neier (non-arrest of Karadzic and Mladic, …)

à ICTFY declared systematic rape as a crime against humanity

à Somalia: pursuit of criminal justice à withdrawal due to US losses à less willingness to intervene in Rwanda


Rwandan Court

Like ICTFY, SC (principally US) did not want to fight, but wanted to do something nonetheless (moral side show)

35 persons indicted, 2 major judgments, including a prime minister and a major

Petty corruption, mismanagement, lack of adequate support


A standing criminal court?

Statute of Rome 1998 (entry in force with 60 ratifications): Permanent criminal court, loosely associated with UN; NGOs and some like-minded States like Canada pressed for Court


Crimes against humanity

War crimes

Aggression as soon as international law presents a sufficiently precise definition

Principle: Complementarity, but if States unable or unwilling to prosecute, Court can act

SC can refer cases to the Court and block delay proceedings

US refuse to sign and pressed other States not to ratify à negative reactions even with British and French as well as Canada and Italy (troops of the latter two have committed crimes in Somalia)

A number of potential problems involving acting or former heads of State, parliamentarians

5 Regional application of HR norms


Ambiguous regional systems in the Western hemisphere

Embryonic in Africa

Otherwise week

Decisive: Underlying political culture, political will, and political acumen.


ECHR (1950/53)

Others: European Social Charter (1961); European convention for the prevention of torture (1986); Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995)

Fundamental individual civil and political rights: mostly negative, requiring sometimes positive steps

Former method of compliance:

Option of accepting jurisdiction and supranational authority of ECHR

Option of accepting private petitions to European Commission on HR [screening, fact-finding, conciliation body]

Commission could bring case before Committee of Ministers or the Court


à Mostly not gross and systematic HR violations

à When gross and systematic à target government uncooperative à HRV not easily prevented or corrected [as in UN, OAS]. Ex: Greece 1967 – 1974; Turkish policy in Cyprus, Turkey itself.


Derogations: Greece, 1967: not allowed under Art. 15 (emergency threatening the life of a nation); justified in Northern Ireland à generally some margin of appreciation given.


Court can order compensations, administrative practises and national laws be changed, challenge national court decisions.

Committee of Ministers à now only function of supervision of Court decisions


Social Charter (1961, revised 1996)

Accepted by 22 States

Ideas of a new protocol that would be added to ECHC making the ESC subject to authoritative review by the European Court of HR

European Committee of Social Rights: independent experts à recommendations to inter-governmental bodies about application of the ESC

à Violations often found, but lack of enforcement

1995 Protocol: Collective private petition by trade unions and certain HR groups [e.g. International Commission of Jurists]

1996 RESC incorporated amendments and protocols & new rights à M control mechanisms unchanged

à European States generally social-democratic

à Not prepared to subject to the same type of authoritative third-party review as with civil and political rights


Convention for the Prevention of Torture (1986)

Except for France, all ECHR States also party to this Convention

Committee of uninstructed persons right to regularly visit States to inquire into measures and conditions pertaining to torture. Confidentiality. But may publicize conclusions of violations persist.

à A number of States have been found in violation


Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995)

Absence of minority rights in ECHR and ESC

No special monitoring aside from unspecified role for CoM

Endorse preservation of national minorities

Public policies on language, State services, etc.


European Union

1950’s: no mention of HR

1992, Maastricht Treaty of European Union: Union shall respect HR guaranteed by ECHR [joint declaration in that sense of European Commission, Council and Parliament in 1977]

European Court of Justice (ECJ) had encouraged HR before:

Institutions eventually took up HR subjects, but no European Declaration on HR

Common foreign & security policy: Use EU influence to protect and promote HR, e.g. foreign aid, electoral assistance  à most of the time rhetoric; but sometimes sanctions à former Yugoslavia, Haiti

Sometimes EU States split, e.g. how to deal with China

à EU = HR actor through its own jurisdiction and through its emerging foreign policy


à No explicit coordination between ECJ and ECHR; potential for conflict considerable

ECHR: explicit HRT containing specified HR; judges = HR specialists
Principles vaguely derived from other sources; judges = economic law specialists

Possible solution: Adherence of EU to ECHR; ECJ: not possible as convention only open to States; States refused to change the law



Helsinki Final Act (1975) helped create environment for change in the East

After CW: From 35 to 55 States

A lot of former USSR States lacked real commitment and real capability

No enforcement power

à Diplomatic framework to try to advance internationally recognized HR, especially civil and political rights

à OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities



Traditional military alliance took up HR duties after CW: lay the groundwork for liberal democracy, including arresting war crimes suspects & return of refugees;

1998 Admission of Hungary, Czech Republic & Poland

1999 Kosovo intervention to stop persecution and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo

Some realist objection: Bosnia and Kosovo not vital security interests à but even for realists: what is a “national interest”? Including liberal democratic “neighbourhood” in Europe?




American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (1948)

Inter-American Convention of HR (1969), 35 State Parties

Commission and court to move towards implementation; yet many States à repeated violations since 1945

Inter-American Court on HR (1979), only 16 States consented to jurisdiction

‘Political values’ of the Western Hemisphere:

Factors constraining regional HR development:

à Similar only on paper to European system

à Ambitious regional HR program, but mostly ineffective in the actual protection of HR in most places most of the time

à Major State (USA) not accept jurisdiction of Court (¹ Europe)

à Individual petitions à not real restraints on State policy as a result (¹ Europe)



OAU (1961) Charter mentions HR; but OAU deals only with racial discrimination and de-colonization à double standard; emphasizing State sovereignty and domestic jurisdiction

African Charter on HR (1981 / 1986):

à Duties and peoples’ rights reflect uniquely African approaches to internationally recognized HR

à Only advisory African HR Commission to oversee application of Charter; weak; some improvements in 1990’s with European help [several in-country investigations with the consent of the appropriate State]

à 1998 Protocol approving the creation of an African HR court; but if unsympathetic government regional machinery not very effective (see Europe)

à CW: Political liberalism & HR application in short supply [inconceivable for the OAU to be clear and strong on behalf of individual HR & enforcement in 80’s]. African culture? Political self-interest? Post-CW: Some progress in “third wave” of democratisation

à Even reporting duties neglected; rarely discussion

à Individual petitions no effect



HR Commission of Arab League à concerned with Israel; double standard

Asia: no inter-governmental organization for HR

à If lack of political will at national level à supra-national level will be ineffective

à Even liberal democracies need supra-national institutions

6 HR and foreign policy in comparative perspective


Enormous gap between liberal legal framework on HR that most States have formally endorsed, and realist principles that they often follow in their foreign policies

Problem not formal (universal or not?) but substantial (reality of genocide after the CW)

States most important actors in IGOs discussed so far; States approve treaties; manipulate foreign aid; arrest war criminals

States’ policy on HR à nationalism = national self-image = informal ideology


US foreign policy and HR

HR = personal freedom as found in US Bill of Rights, not with the broader and more complex conception found in the International Bill of Rights

Ergo: HR foreign policy à pressure others to improve personal freedom; not applying global or regional standards to itself

Talk about freedom and democracy

American exceptionalism can lead to involvement or isolationism.

Interventions in the name of HR only with limited casualties: Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo

Public opinion for pragmatic internationalism, not for moral internationalism à only moral and altruistic arguments alone not likely to bring about political coalitions for action

Pressure groups, media, can’t change the fundamental aversion towards combat casualties

Greater attention for religious freedom abroad in the 90’s, but not enough to impose sanctions against allies

As long as price “in blood or treasure” is not too high, US administration for HR

Further soft spots:

Strong points about recent US rights policy abroad:


à Rhetorical support for universal human rights, but national particularism for USA

à Rhetorical support for development according to liberal democracy, but extensive economic relations with many authoritarian States

à Support for two ad hoc criminal tribunals, but not for a standing court & mostly shield away from arresting war criminals

à Advocate of the extension of Chapters VII and VI, but block significant UN protection force in Rwanda or DRC & humanitarian intervention in Kosovo


Other liberal democracies

Virtually all have increasingly active policies on HR

Similar to USA: take various initiatives; particular national slant to their policies; their general orientation to IHR reflects their national political culture

Netherlands: self-image = international, cosmopolitan; wants to be very progressive in foreign policy // M Srebrenica 1995; terminate aid to Indonesia on grounds of HR à no leverage in East Timor crisis. Effort to combine development assistance with protection of HR

GB: proud legal culture emphasizing constitutionalism and limited government. Accepted whole bill of rights. Accepted supra-national institutions (CoE, EU). Tried to condemn China in front of Commission in 1997 // M Arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Japan: HR = imported from the West, not high on agenda. But effort to play greater role: Pressed Burma; mostly voted with West in UN

Russia: Wants » good relations with West; concerned about protection of nationals abroad, but tradition of individual legal rights = very weak // M Chechnya; Slavic tendency in former Yugoslavia; Iraq

France: Proud HR nation // M Torture bureau in Algeria, 1954-62; support for African dictators


Illiberal States

Iran: Rejects the notion of secular and universal HR in IPL; Sharia: emphasis on duties; changes (Khatami) only in the context of discussing and interpreting religious law



As late as 1944, HR considered essentially a domestic matter

à National history, character, self-image and nationalism

à Contemporary situation and interests; fear and insecurity (e.g. minorities)

à Even illiberal States à propelled to draw more attention to rights in foreign policy

à State foreign policy = very large role on P&P of HR

7 Non-governmental organizations and HR


A. Private advocacy for HR

Out of 250 or so, only a handful with enough resources and reputation

à Based in the West, mostly concerned with civil and political rights as well as international humanitarian law

Others might become HR actors at certain moments: Catholic Church, World Council of Churches; AFL-CIO; “ethnic lobbies”; national HR actors; …

à Concept of “movement” on specific issues. Example: Movement for UN criminal court: like-minded States, 200+ NGOs, elements of the communications media, some individuals.

Spreading of information on the internet with potential of considerable impact


The process

1)      Collection of accurate information and timely dissemination

2)      Try to persuade public authorities to adopt new HR standards or apply those already adopted. Kind of action depends on structure.
M May come across public authorities as moralistic, rigid, and politically naïve. Relatively little success in achieving immediate policy changes. But many movements success over time: Slavery, etc. Views of the “right” policy may differ even with sympathetic governments.

3)      Education/publishing
May fall on pragmatic rather than moralistic political culture (US)

4)      Direct services to victims of HRV: judicial assistance, amicus curiae briefs, observation of trials, …

Can’t threaten electoral punishment or withholding of significant financial resources.



Difficult to analyze: multiple causation, media attention

Sometimes-elusive notion of success or achievement:

à Wider movement: NGO’s create conditions in which governmental pressure can be effective

à Important role in some cases: Pressure of AI helped release some prisoners of conscience; NGO pressure helped transform the political culture of Mexico, Argentinia, etc.; UN monitoring mechanisms rely on NGO information

à When States complain about NGO’s: safe indication that they do have some influence


B. Private action for relief and development

Economic and social rights: Food, clothing, shelter, medical care; non-combatant right to medical assistance; UN extended application to “complex emergencies”

Many relief/development agencies got a salient discourse on HR


Relief: process

1)      Negotiate access to those in need

2)      Accurate assessment of need

3)      Mobilize relief in a timely and effective way

4)      Deliver assistance in a timely and cost-effective way

5)      Evaluation of past action and planning for future

à More coordination?

à Separate politics from humanitarian action?

à Could one change the situation through new legislation and/or better dissemination of norms?


Relief: influence

Considerable if amorphous influence

ICRC, UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders

But inter-governmental organisations = major sources for material resources directed to humanitarian assistance in war and complex situations

Difficult to fully “neutralize” relief


Development: process

PVOs crucial part of development process

Sustainable development: part of it is participation of NGOs and CBOs in the WB, UNDP and OECD States


Development: influence

Ethnic/internal conflicts à less attention to development

PVOs didn’t always think of development in relation to HR à shift towards participatory rights (empowerment)

à Amorphous contribution to a wider movement, network or coalition interested in sustainable human development



à Advocate HR ideas

à Implement the right to humanitarian assistance

à Contribute to the HR inherent in sustainable human development

Impact on public authorities and private individuals

Provide information and challenge/validate facts and policies of States

Making and implementing HR standards would probably not work the same way without NGOs

NGOs need States: Arrest war criminals, provide food and tents and sometimes physical relief, provide capital and cooperation for Development

States need NGOs: ideas and services

8 Transnational corporations and HR


TNC à tremendous impact on persons, for good or ill

Attention to TNC = new frontier in the international discourse on HR

Renewed pressures on States to contribute to, rather than contradict, internationally recognized HR


Enormous impact

Only six States larger revenue than the nine largest TNCs; 200 largest TNCs in just 10 States, most importantly USA & Japan

à Power of the TNCs

à Difficulty of their regulation


A critical view

Unregulated business: often exploited, crushed, de-humanized and affronted human dignity

National capitalism: Prevent gross exploitation

International capitalism: Stabilize capitalism regardless of exploitation

Growing disparity N-S

Globalisation of economy and of HR developed separately from each other

TNC sometimes active against progressive governments, labour regulation, even in favour of cooperation with military governments (Royal Dutch Shell, Nigeria)


A more positive view

Other types of TNCs: consumer product firms, manufacturing firms, service and information firms

Compatible with HR, sometimes even helpful (health care, safety, education, democracy) à economic interest in avoiding negative publicity

One study finds association of TNC with improved civil-political and socio-economic rights


A balance sheet

Countervailing power from State or HRO or HR movements needed

Nike and Reebok altered policies in Asia (child labour, etc.) à public relations, damage control, substantive concern with HR?


Regulation for HR?



à TNCs frequently asked by citizens & governments for more active commitment to IHR

à PIL so far does not apply to TNCs

à Ways to reorientate: private negotiated codes of conduct, accompanied by independent monitoring and public reporting [especially with support of governments] à some promise for change

à Process likely to remain quasi-legal and extra-judicial; even no some national courts may bring people remedy

à Evidence of changing attitudes of TNCs: Volkswagen, Swiss banks

9 The politics of liberalism in a realist world


International law on HR is based on liberalism, but the practice of HR all too often reflects a realist world



Toward the future

HR = institutionalised in IR, but will remain controversial.

Controversies in liberalism concerning traditional principles (self-determination, freedom of religion, even freedom from torture, etc.) and third generation of HR (environment, peace, etc.)

Classical liberal: emphasis on law, criminal justice, and other punishments for violation of the law

Neo-liberal: many avenues to the advancement of personal dignity and social justice, of which attention to legal rights, adjudication and sanctions is only one

Forsythe sees no alternative to case-by-case evaluation (Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, China, Pinochet, etc.)

Feminist critique:

Controversies beyond liberalism: individual HR based on liberal philosophy = misguided as a means to human dignity

Realism: Falsely assumes permanence of national interest, doesn’t capture situations not characterized by fear, suspicion and the classical security dilemma

à Historically dominant prism in West for understanding IR

Marxism: Individual legal rights = a sham in the context of economic forces and structures that prevent the effective exercise of HR