Traditionally, international law governed relations between nations exclusively. Individuals did not have international legal rights. They were objects, not subjects of international law. To the extent that states owed obligations to individuals, such obligations derived from the individual's nationality and were owed to the individual's nation. A state could seek redress for the treatment of its citizens in a foreign state via the international legal system, but the system did not protect domestic citizens of a state from their own state. However, international law recognized the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which justified the use of force against a state which maltreated its own citizens. Although this doctrine could be used as a pretext for one nation to invade another, it was the first to limit a state's freedom under international law in the treatment of its own citizens.
International law has long recognized the ability of states to limit their own sovereignty by treaty. In so doing, a subject that was not governed by international law becomes international. This principle has been instrumental in the development of international human rights law, as illustrated by early human rights treaties.
Other precursors to the modern human rights system include the League of Nations Mandate system (continued by the U.N. trusteeship system) which administered former colonies of states which lost World War I, with the view that the well being of native populations was a sacred trust. By 1994, there were no more such trust territories. World War I also resulted in the redrawing of borders and the creation of new states and minority populations. The victororious nations insisted that the new states protect such minorities by means of a series of treaties concluded after the war. The League of Nations acted as guarantor of these treaty obligations and developed a system for handling violations of minority rights. The League of Nations also established the International Labour Organization (ILO), which is now a specialized agency of the U.N. International labor standards have influenced the development of international human rights law and trade law. State responsibility for injury to aliens is an old doctrine of international law, consistent with the idea that individuals were not subjects of international law and states' obligations to individuals derived from their nationality. However, under this doctrince, general principles, such as minimum standards of justice, developed and contributed to modern human rights law. The state responsibility doctrine remains relevant today in diplomatic relations.
Early human rights protection efforts focused on holding nations accountable for human rights violations. However, it soon became evident that it was necessary to hold individuals and other private entities accountable. International criminal law imposes individual responsibility for international crimes, but there was no permanent international court with jurisdiction to apply the law. Up until recently, criminal courts were established to handle specific situations, such as the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal and the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in 1993-4. The Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted in 1998 by U.N. diplomatic conference and entered into force in 2002.
International humanitarian law has also influenced the development of international human rights law and is actually much older than human rights law. It is the human rights component of the law of armed conflict and relates, for example, to the treatment of injured combatants and prisoners of war. Today, the law of armed conflict is codified in the four Geneva Conventions.
International human rights law began with the protection of certain groups i.e. enslaved peoples, minorities, certain native populations, foreign nationals and armed combatants. The legal fiction that injury suffered by an alien abroad was an injury to the state of the alien’s nationality left citizens unprotected by their own state. Modern international human rights law differs most from earlier international law doctrines by recognizing that all individuals have basic human rights as individuals, not as nationals of a particular state. Buergenthal, Shelton & Stewart, International Human Rights in a Nutshell, 4th ed. (West, 2009) K3240.4 .B84 2009.
GlobaLex is an online collection of research guides on international and foreign law. The platform is hosted by New York University's Hauser Global Law School Program. The following are related to various aspects of international human rights law:
UPDATE: The European Human Rights System (July/Aug 2018) authored by Grigory Dikov.
UPDATE: The Inter-American System of Human Rights: A Research Guide (Nov/Dec. 2022) by Francisco A. Avalos.
UPDATE: Researching Indigenous Peoples International Law (June 2019) authored by Christopher C. Dykes.
UPDATE: Researching International Human Rights (Jan./Feb. 2021) authored by Susan M. Boland.
UPDATE: A Review of the Progressive Development of International Human Rights Framework on Capital Punishment (July/Aug 2022) authored by Dr. Paul O. Ogendi.
The Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law is one of the most authoritative resources in its field. Contributors to the Encyclopedia include scholars and practitioners from around the world, and articles are edited by a team from the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law. The articles cover all areas of international law, including important treaties, cases, and concepts. For example, there are over 400 entries under the general heading of "Human Rights."
High quality librarian-authored research guides, like this one, are often a good way to start research on a new topic. The following are selected guides from academic websites that may be helpful in researching various aspects of international human rights law. See also at left the separate box on GlobaLex guides.
American Society of International Law: Human Rights and International Criminal Law
Series of short news briefs and videos related to these topics.
Guide to Researching International Human Rights Law: Online Sources and Databases
Online guide published by the International Justice Resource Center, updated in January 2022.
Posted on the Bodleian Libraries (University of Oxford) site. Includes separate sections for regions.
Human Rights Law Research Guide
Maintained by the Georgetown Law Library.
Peace Palace Library: Human Rights
Located in The Hague, the Peace Palace Library serves the International Court of Justice and has been collecting international legal materials since 1913. The library's website provides access to its online catalogue as well as various research guides.
For assistance citing to foreign and international materials in U.S. legal publications and documents, see the most recent edition of The Bluebook (the 21st). Note that Table 2 on Foreign Jurisdictions is now posted on The Bluebook's web page (no fee). See also the Guide to Foreign and International Legal Citations indicated below for assistance interpreting foreign and international legal citations. It is located in our Reference collection, 6th floor K89 .G84 2009.