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When a Country Breaches International Human Rights Law

By: Louise Smith, barrister - Updated: 23 Mar 2018 | comments*Discuss
 
Human Rights United Nations Law

Many countries have their own laws to protect human rights. However, not all countries have such laws and those who do sometimes fail to follow them. Enforcing human rights law internationally can be problematic – different cultures may have different standards and may be unwilling to change their behaviour to satisfy internationally accepted norms.

In today’s world ensuring human rights may have to be balanced against the need or desire to maintain trade or diplomatic relations with a country whose human rights record is questionable. The waters have been further muddied by the so-called war on terror. When countries, which might previously have been setting the standard for international human rights, have subverted those rights it may make it more difficult to enforce human rights in other countries.

United Nations Human Rights Law

The starting point of much international human rights law is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) in 1948. This document sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms considered by the UN to be universal to all people. Although it is not in itself a legally binding document it has been accepted as a template for human rights by many countries throughout the world.

How The United Nations Deals with Complaints about Human Rights

The Human Rights Council was set up by the UN in 2006 to promote and protect human rights and is made up of 47 inter-governmental representatives from around the world. Part of its current remit is to assess the human rights situation in all 192 member states of the UN. The UN has a complaints procedure in place through which organisations or individuals can alert the UN to human rights breaches. This is aimed at resolving persistent, serious and reliably documented breaches of human rights. A screening process is in place to filter out malicious or politically-motivated complaints.

If the UN receives a complaint of serious human rights abuses it launches an investigation. However, in order to carry out an investigation in the relevant country the commission must have the consent of the country involved. A debate may then be held on that country’s human rights abuses and a condemnation issued, if the allegations are upheld. The idea is that, by working with the country involved, the UN can help that country improve its human rights record. Ultimately, if neither the investigation nor the debate resolves the problems a UN resolution may be passed condemning the country’s abuse of human rights.

Over the years the UN has introduced a number of conventions and protocols relating to all areas of human rights. Through specialist commissions, advisers, working groups and Special Rapporteurs based all over the world the UN seeks to protect and promote human rights. Whilst maintaining sensitivity to cultural differences, the UN must uphold a basic, universal standard for human rights.

Countries which have signed up to international human rights treaties generally commit to protecting the human rights of individuals and promoting universal human rights. Those countries should, therefore, have in place a domestic legal system that can be used to address human rights breaches. Where this system fails to resolve a human rights problem the UN may get involved to investigate the breach, help the country resolve it and if necessary take steps to ensure the country complies with its human rights obligations. The UN’s ability to deal with human rights abuses largely depends on two things: the country’s cooperation with the UN’s mechanisms and the country’s desire to maintain its international reputation.

Enforcement of UN Human Rights Law

The UN’s Security Council can deploy UN peacekeeping forces to countries where human rights violations are said to be taking place. This may happen at the request of the country itself or following a resolution, due to a failure by the country to resolve the problems or because of a breakdown in the rule of law in that country. The UN’s primary objective is to avoid war and keep the peace – therefore deploying forces of any kind will always be a last resort.

The International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court was created to deal with the most serious of international human rights abuses – generally amounting to genocide or war crimes. It works independently of the UN and can prosecute individuals for crimes which occurred after its inauguration in July 2002. Either the UN or a country itself can refer cases to the International Criminal Court for further investigation and possible prosecution. Famously the USA refused to ratify the law which gave effect to the International Criminal Court, fearing that American soldiers could be liable to prosecution for war crimes if it did so.

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[Add a Comment]
Why is the UK violating free speach rights by arresting and prosecuting someone over an internet joke?All this talk of other cultures, but a failure of introspection.
Common Sense - 23-Mar-18 @ 12:44 PM
Why does Australia and Canada allow hate speech to suppress personal religious beliefs? Why are Islamic religious countries allowed to get away with state persecution of anyone who chooses to have a different religious belief?
Voice for justice - 17-Dec-17 @ 1:24 PM
I have been trying to go through various channels such as my own government embassy, lawyers in three different countries, and even writing to the lawyer of the Hague Convention offices of the Netherlands. there is no channel for anyone to be able to successfully report any incident of human rights abuse against an individual, and the only way contact can be made is through your government. Your government however always send you away saying 'this is a matter for legal issues you can get a lweyr' but lawyers say 'i cant do this, as only your government UN representative can take this to the UN. They dont do anything except if its world news like ISIS on Syria or something, otherwise, for single individuals, they have no interest or channel of communication for us down here on the street
Spencer Littlewood - 27-Jul-17 @ 11:52 AM
"A debate may then be held on that country’s human rights abuses and a condemnation issued, if the allegations are upheld." what does this exactly mean? debate between who? is this shown in public?
Ena - 16-Dec-16 @ 7:33 PM
To whom it may concern I am sending this email on behalf of my brother who is in shotts prisonhe was arrested in spain on July 2003 he was released in September 2004 he stayed in Spain waiting to hear back from the courtswhen he didn't hear anything he returned to uk in 2006 due to his healthHe was then arrested in July 2010 were he was taken to court in Edinburgh he was released on bail while the court got more info about his case he was arrested again on 13 th August 2010 when he tried to take his own life he was in hospitaltill 24 th August 2010 were he was taken back to court he was sent to saughton prison to await his extradition back to Spain he was taken to Spain January 2011 were he was in prison until his court date 18 th July 2011 were he got sentenced to 10 year he asked to be transferred back to the uk to serve his timehe was back in uk December 2012when he came back he was giving his liberation date as October 2017 which was wrong as they hadn't taken into account his time spent in prison before he was transferred in which his lawyer has now got that changed to April 2017 but they haven't taken into account his time spent in prison in July 2003 - September 2004 which is 14 month that he hasn't had taken of his sentence his lawyer has been trying to get this sorted since he came back to the uk but no satisfaction . Is there any advice you could give me in helping my brother get back his 14 month he spent in prison from July 03 - sept 04 Any advice would be much appreciated Thanking you Denise Carlin
denise - 3-Nov-14 @ 7:12 PM
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