Preamble section 4:
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,


  1. International Law and Human Rights (1)
  2. International Law and Human Rights (2)
  3. Antecedents
  4. Influence of the Universal Declaration on International Human Rights Law (1)
  5. Influence of the Universal Declaration on International Human Rights Law (2)
  6. Compliance with International Human Rights Obligations


In fact, neither the international political system nor international law ever closed out totally what went on inside a state and what happened to individuals within a state. Diplomats have long enjoyed extraordinary protection, and the law requires states to provide all aliens a minimum standard of "justice." By treaties, some dating back to the early days of the modern international legal system, governments promised other governments to accord religious toleration, basic rights of equality, or other protections to their own citizens or inhabitants with whom the other government had religious, ethnic or other identity. In the 19th century and again after the First World war the big powers imposed on lesser ones treaties guaranteeing basic rights to specified or ethnic minorities. Early treaties outlawing slavery and the stave trade in effect gave all persons in many states freedom from slavery. In the aftermath of World War I, the International Labor Office (later the International Labor Organization) began its long and successful history of promoting international conventions setting minimum labor and social standards for all inhabitants of all parties. The treaties that concluded peace with Italy and with several central European countries following the Second World war imposed obligations to respect human rights.

This earlier international law afforded important protections to many people, but most protections did not apply to all the inhabitants of a state and all were rooted in political (rather than strictly humanitarian) considerations. Mutual religious toleration and respect for ethnic minorities identified with other governments reduced international tensions and helped keep the peace. The World War II peace treaties were law imposed by the victors upon the vanquished only. The ILO conventions were capitalism's response to the blandishments of socialism; nations, moreover, had a national interest in shaping the labor conditions in countries that competed with them in world markets.

But it was the war against Hitler that identified violations of human rights as a major threat to international peace, and they were linked in the rhetoric of the war and in plans for the peace. Human rights were prominent in the constitutions of the new nations that began to emerge in the postwar years, e.g., India, and of almost every new nation that came thereafter. But the coalition of Realpolitik and idealism did not long survive the victory. In the aftermath of victory, there was some pressure on all governments to give meaning to the humanitarian rhetoric that had been invoked to articulate the aims of the war. Heads of state and foreign ministers, however, might have been content to satisfy their wartime commitment by imposing respect for human rights on the defeated countries and paying homage to human rights in ringing declarations and in generalities and exhortations like those in the UN Charter. But the existence of the UN (and other intergovernmental organizations,) the opportunities which their procedures provided and the momentum they generated, the influence of national and transnational NGOs on governmental policy in international organizations, the influence of personalities of international stature (e.g., Eleanor Roosevelt) who came to represent their governments and worker toward a common aim, the support given their work by intellectuals and media of information, all combined to launch an international human rights movement, with law-making one of its principal elements.

Because, in general, the condition of human rights seemed to have little relation to the foreign policy interests of states, traditional policy-makers and diplomats tended to have little concern for the human rights movement, but neither did they see any need to court the public embarrassment of opposing it. In the UN General Assembly and the ECOSOC and their sub-organs, governments were impelled to participation and surely could not lightly resist it. Protected by the principle of unanimity, governments could take part in the law-making process without any commitment to adhere to the final product, trying nevertheless to shape emerging international norms so that their country's behavior would not be found wanting in their light; and it might even be possible to adhere to them without undue burden if that later appeared desirable.

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Peter Danchin, Columbia University