International human rights law has come of age at a time when it can perform an invaluable service to the international community. If, as we contend, the major challenges to human rights result from the failure of the state to fulfill its role as guarantor of human rights, the body of norms and procedures built up over the last forty-five years offers both a basis on which the legitimacy of governments can be challenged and guidance for governments willing to respect them, including by undertaking major reforms where necessary. The recent experience of the former Soviet Union certainly lends support to this dual function of international human rights law.
The larger historical question is whether we are moving toward a world constitutive system in which international human rights law embodies genuinely shared values. Is international human rights law a precursor of an emerging body of international law based on human values and needs rather than state sovereignty? We believe that, however contradictory it may appear, international law, established four hundred years ago as a system of norms governing the behavior of sovereign rulers, has emerged, on the eve of the twenty-first century, as a factor promoting human values and interests. International human rights law is a privileged vehicle of that transformation of international law.
The International Bill of Human Rights and the regional conventions, with the implementation procedures that have evolved in the U.N. and regional organizations, certainly helped bring about the radical transformations in Central America, Southern Africa and Central and Eastern Europe over the last half-dozen years. It would be hazardous to recommence the codification of this branch of international law. Nevertheless, recent normative and institutional developments have moved international human rights law beyond the International Bill of Human Rights and make it even more urgent to identify the new modes of international cooperation that can make this body of international law adequate to the challenges of the twenty-first century.