The Limits of International Law

By Jack L. Goldsmith; Eric A. Posner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
HUMAN RIGHTS

International human rights law regulates the way states treat individuals under their control. The modern multilateral human rights regime consists primarily of treaties regulating genocide (1951), racial discrimination (1969), civil and political rights (1976), economic, social, and cultural rights (1976), discrimination against women (1981), torture (1987), and the rights of children (1990). (There are also various regional human rights treaties.) Each party to these treaties promises other signatories to protect the human rights of individuals under its control. The treaties also create various monitoring mechanisms that aim to promote compliance. As Table 4.1 shows, the vast majority of states have ratified most of these important human rights treaties.

Many believe these treaties are novel post–World War II developments. This view is misleading. International law regulation of “internal” state action is obviously not new. Bilateral investment treaties have long prevented states from expropriating private property within their territory. Similarly, individual rights protection is an old concern for international law. Treaties dating back to the Peace of Westphalia (1648) protected religious freedoms. The nineteenth century saw the rise of an international law prohibition on the slave trade. And international law has long protected individual aliens from denials of justice. Finally, concerns about human rights affected states’ decisions to recognize foreign states and governments in the nineteenth century (Grewe 2000).

What was new in the postwar period was the effort to institutionalize an international human rights regime in a series of multilateral treaties. The novelty lay in the scale of the undertaking and the creation of international institutions to monitor compliance. But if this is new,

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