The building block of the international system and modern international law is the sovereign state. Traditionally, international relations and the laws that it produced dealt with the regulation of external state behaviour, or foreign policy. Beginning in the 20th century, however, increasing attention was focused on the domestic behaviour of states. While some progress was made under the guise of the League of Nations after World War I, it was not until after the Second World War that human rights became a subject of international regulatory efforts. The result was a dramatic shift in international relations that transformed the individual from a mere object of international law to one of its subjects.
Until the emergence of international human rights, individuals enjoyed personal liberties and protections only to the extent that their governments afforded them. In some countries, citizens were granted generous civil liberties while in others citizens remained largely powerless and unprotected. The process aimed at ensuring basic liberties and conditions of human decency began with the framing of the United Nations Charter (Donnelly, 2006). The Charter’s preamble signals the organization’s commitment to establishing individual rights by affirming faith in fundamental human rights; Article 55 provides a clearer commitment to individual liberties by stating:
With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the United Nations shall promote…universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
The broad statements put down in the United Nations Charter started a process of specifying individual rights that were shared universally. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly, recognizing the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. The UDHR’s thirty articles provide a strong basis upon which numerous human rights treaties have been drafted. Key human rights documents include the Convention on the Prevention and the Punishment of Genocide (1951), Convention to End Racial Discrimination (1965), Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights (1966), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), Convention Against Torture (1984) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Hundreds of other treaties and documents bring the legal regime on human rights to its current form.
In order for human rights to meaningfully impact international relations, more than the drafting of treaties is required. In a perfect world, states would internalize human rights protections and police themselves to ensure that individual liberties and rights are respected. In a world of sovereign, independent nation-states, the international community must collectively ensure that states act in accordance with prevailing international human rights documents. Economic sanctions are the most commonly applied pressure placed on states that violate human rights. Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) was the subject of the first comprehensive sanctions policy authorized by the UN Security Council. Over the course of the post-World War II era, the Security Council has implemented sanctions regimes on other human rights violating states, including South Africa, Iraq, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ivory Coast, The Sudan, and, most recently, Libya.