International Human Rights Law

It had been the intention to adopt detailed international laws at the same time as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In the event, it took almost twenty years to reach agreement, such were the ideological divisions of the Cold War era.

The command and control regimes of the communist bloc had no wish to further the cause of civil and political rights. By contrast, the US perceived social and economic rights as undermining its frontier tradition of individuals taking responsibility for themselves.

The eventual solution was to create two legal instruments of international human rights law, separating the contentious areas. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were both adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and finally came into force in 1976. To this day, China has refused to ratify ICCPR whilst the US has likewise rejected ICESCR.

Twenty Years of Economic and Social Rights Advocacy – leading figures from the world of human rights reflect on progress in economic and social rights
from Center for Social and Economic Rights

There are now nine core international human rights treaties, including ICCPR and ICESCR. The additions include child rights, discrimination against women and rights of migrant workers. As countries ratify these international treaties, they accept the obligation to protect their citizens through the introduction of commensurate national laws and institutions necessary to enforce them.

Important UN human rights instruments exist outside this core but may not carry the full weight of international law. Strong claims made by special interest groups sometimes overlook the reality that categories of human rights vary in their legal status.

What are the universal human rights? – an explanation of the origins of human rights and the limitations of human rights law
from TED-Ed

Clarity in a limited number of specific social sectors has been gained through the efforts of human rights campaigners to encourage fresh UN Resolutions to spell out basic rights. For example, in 2010 the UN General Assembly approved a Resolution recognising that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a human right


more Human Rights briefings (updated March 2018)
Political Backlash
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Women’s Rights in International Law
Human Rights Law Enforcement
Rights-based Development
Source material and useful links