The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first intergovernmental statement in world history to approve a set of basic principles on universal human rights. Since the 1940s, when Articles 55 and 56 of the United Nations Charter required states to co-operate on human rights matters, almost all states -- not just Western ones -- have regularly reaffirmed the existence of universal human rights without negative discrimination based on nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, creed, or colour. This reaffirmation occurred most saliently in Vienna at the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights. Regional developments have supplemented this global trend, most notably in Europe and the western hemisphere, but also in Africa and, to a lesser extent, the Arab world. The European Court of Human Rights regularly issues binding judgments on states. The Organization of American States (OAS) in its 1991 Santiago Declaration indicated that the presence or absence of democratic government in the hemisphere was an international, not a domestic, matter. The international or transnational law of human rights is now a well developed corpus of law, far more concentrated and specified than in other fields such as international environmental law.
The twentieth century, however, is not only a time of increasing professions of international morality and human rights; it is also the bloodiest century in human history. As the 21st century approaches, a fundamental challenge is to reduce the enormous gap between the liberal legal framework on human rights that most states have formally endorsed and the illiberal reality that is so evident from Algeria to Afghanistan, from Belarus to Burma, from China to Croatia. The most important problem is not that certain Asian states at the 1993 Vienna conference tried to elevate cultural relativism and national particularism over universal (or regional) human rights. It is rather that after the cold war we are faced with glaring genocide and other crimes against humanity on a massive scale. Treaties to protect the rights of women and children are juxtaposed to a global industry in the sex trade. Treaties to outlaw slavery, the slave trade, and slavery-like practices are combined with daily press accounts of people held in de facto bondage -- whether sugar-cane cutters in the Dominican Republic, shirt makers in Guatemala, or child labourers in India and Pakistan. Two 1977 protocols to the 1949 Geneva conventions for victims of war meant nothing to those who killed Red Cross workers in Chechnya or United Nations aid workers in Rwanda.
While intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and private transnational groups dealing with human rights proliferate, states and their foreign policies remain key to progressive developments. IGOs, from the United Nations through the OAT to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have extensive human rights programmes. Independent international officials in these organizations have some influence, but it is state-members of these IGOs that take the most important decisions and that are, along with non-state parties, the targets of reform efforts. Likewise, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights are highly active in human rights matters and also wield some influence. But again, it is states that approve treaties and their monitoring mechanisms, states that (may or may not) arrest war criminals -- either singly or via international organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), states that manipulate foreign assistance in relation to rights.
This article looks at human rights and state foreign policy in comparative perspective. It focusses on the United States, the most important actor in international relations on the eve of the 21st century, showing that it has a particular slant to its foreign policy on rights and is …