5 Resources to Help You Understand Human Rights

By Carolyn Brown

Why be concerned about human rights? As the world we live in becomes increasingly more global, it is important to protect the rights of people from both State and non-State actors. Just as there are laws that govern domestic protections, there are laws and mechanisms that attempt to regulate abuses internationally.  Here are a few places to start off in understanding the current political climate in regards to human rights. These sources both lay out a basis of what developed over the years since the world became concerned with human rights, as well as some of the critiques in the lapse of protection provided by the original goal of protecting human rights. This is by no means an exhaustive list of resources to start out. These are just a few that help shape an understanding of human rights and the challenges the world faces presently.

1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights: This is pretty much the starting point of understanding the landscape of international human rights law.  It is the beginning of the international community addressing the abuses that occurred during the war, with hopes to prevent future atrocities from occurring. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the document on December 10, 1948 following the horrors of World War II. Pulling from the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of man, the document espouses such ideals and rights such as the right to life, liberty and security, freedom from arbitrary arrests, freedom of movement, and the right to education. Of course, we see violations of these human rights currently, between the refugee crisis in Europe, the lack of available, affordable education, or the counter-measures many States have taken against peaceful protesters or restriction of social media sites and programs, like the measure put in place by China. However, this document is the first step towards creating a better world by first stating everyone’s rights. Implementing is where it becomes a challenge. You can read about the history of this document here.

2. International Human Rights Law: Returning to Universal Principles by Mark Gibney provides a great basis in understanding basic human rights principles and critiques the gaps in the declaration and other articles that attempt to protect the rights of others, as well as the international system itself. He first lays out a basic understanding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the precedent over the years the document has been enforced in a manner that is accessible to the general public, and isn’t as dry as reading legalize (for those not that interesting in spending time in the nitty gritty of various statutes and charters). Gibney then proceeds to advocate for a broader meaning of the law regarding state responsibility, and how these rights are enforced and protected. The book is a relatively quick read, and is pretty cheap on amazon for those of you that are interested. This is another great place to start as he lays out the mechanics of the international system and enforcement and protection of human rights.

3. Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights addresses the fact that many states interpret their duty to protect human rights within their own borders, and not abroad, thus limiting the scope of protections to their own borders and creating gaps in the scope of human rights protections. This document isn’t necessarily law, but it offers critiques on what is missing. 40 leading international law experts around the world to attempt to clarify the duties of States on the basis of international human rights law developed these principles in order to fill the gaps where rights weren’t being respected, whether a State refused to address crises situations or are simply unable to. They also provide limits to a State’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, limiting the scope of a State’s influence and attempting to prevent abuse of power. I find this an important aspect of human rights in regards to better enforcing and protecting human rights. I’ve included this in the list since it addresses concerns of the lack of a State’s ability to protect its own peoples’ human rights and how another state has an obligation to step in if they are able, while still providing parameters to keep assisting States in check.

4. Home State Responsibility and Local Communities: The Case of Global Mining. Sara Seck’s article talk about the gaps that occur in human rights violations committed by companies, much like the aforementioned Maastricht Principles, but she provides insight where a lapse in protecting the rights of others came about when non-governmental actors, mining companies in the cases she examines, were involved. She argues that these companies’ home states have jurisdiction to regulate and protect citizens from human rights abuses, and therefore they have the obligation to protect the three pillars of public participation, which are access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice. This study brings human rights into a more modern global perspective as companies and non-government actors expand their reach internationally, creating a lack of accountability in these companies and non-government actors in protecting human rights. There are always concerns of companies picking up and moving when governments consider restrictions on their actions, however, so until it becomes a norm in the international community, it’s a risk States have to take if they are serious about committing themselves to human rights. It also provides the affected communities with a means to seek remedy to the violations that occurred, which I believe is just as important as States protecting their own peoples’ human rights.

5. The Political Terror Scale measures human rights violations in regards to state-sanctioned “killings, torture, disappearances and political imprisonment” based off of reports conducted by various agencies that report on human rights, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S State Department, all of which have information available to the public if you’re interested in specifics within a country. Again, this is only a measure of state actors abuses committed by state actors and does not include non-state actors. If you’re interested in seeing how countries stack up on protection from State abuse, check out their website. This is an example of a practical way to use these reports in an attempt to hold States accountable in protecting the rights of their citizens.


For more information on human rights and the current political climate, I’ve provided the following links to read at your leisure.


(Photo Credit:  Ekta Parishad, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11410373)



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