top of page

International Human Rights Law 101: What is International Human Rights Law?


The international arena is defined by norms that govern the manner in which both state and non-state actors perform. The seeming everyday ubiquity of such norms, though, can make them quite difficult to define. One of these concepts is international human rights, often touted yet rarely fully defined, which governs how politicians form policies, craft rhetoric, and engage in diplomacy with other states. This International Human Rights Law 101 series helps to provide the reader several useful historical and contemporary definitions to better understand the concept, along with several tools of analysis to examine modern case studies. Therefore, this 101 series is comprised of seven different articles which help to contextualize international human rights and the laws it governs, in both a historical and contemporary context.

The International Human Rights Law 101 series is therefore divided into seven parts: 1. International Human Rights Law 101: What is International Human Rights Law?

2. International Human Rights Law 101: What is International Humanitarian Law?

3. International Human Rights Law 101: The United Nations

4. International Human Rights Law 101: The International Court of Justice

5. International Human Rights Law 101: Human Rights in Bosnian War

6. International Human Rights Law 101: A Way Forward and Conclusions What are human rights, and from where are they derived? To define international human rights law, the ubiquitous but often nebulous term of human rights must first be discussed. Human rights as will be referred to in this article and beyond can be succinctly defined as rights to which all people are entitled, simply by being human, regardless of one's personal identifiers such as race, gender, sexuality, or religion (USCIS, 2019). The United Nations provides various examples of inherent human rights, such as "the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more" (Human Rights). These rights undercut nearly all sectors of international relations policies and programs, providing a foundational basis which informs the work of organizations such as the International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization. The inherent quality of human rights, i.e., being "universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent, and mutually reinforcing" must not be understated (USCIS, 2019). To violate human rights is often considered a grave affront to one's own humanity precisely due to this inherent quality. The very concept of human rights can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Athenian Greece and Babylon, with the first written mentions of the ideal present in works such as the Ten Commandments, the Rights of Athenian Citizens, and the Code of Hammurabi (USCIS, 2019). A prototypical version of international law evolved during the same era, in which the Roman concept of jus gentium - or a law common to all men - that would be applied to foreigners being tried within Roman courts was created (USCIS, 2019). The modern notion of human rights, though, which governs the international system has only evolved within the last few decades, with the advent of the United Nations system following the devastation of World War Two. The concept of human dignity as such has not always existed and has changed depending on the historical era, geographical location, and civilization. The following section describes in detail vital moments of human rights recognition throughout history, up until the founding of the United Nations system.

Figure 1. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most pre-eminent human rights documents of the modern age.

The chronological evolution of human rights The first depiction of human rights codified into law is that of the Cyrus cylinders of 539 BC. Cyrus the Great abolished slavery, enacted religious freedom, and established relative racial equality within Babylon (Sutto, 2019). These Cylinders would serve later as inspiration for the first four articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to be discussed later in the third article of this series.

Two later documents crucial to the evolution of the concept of human rights include the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights. Enacted in 1215, the Magna Carta was among the first to question the divine right of monarchy and introduce the concept of “rule of law”, a code of ethics which “offered protection from arbitrary prosecution and incarceration”, along with defining a set of liberties to all persons (Sutto, 2019). The Magna Carta would provide the foundation for the English Bill of Rights nearly five centuries later, in which specific constitutional and civil rights for the English peoples would be established along with giving Parliament predominance over the monarchy. These two documents would prove crucial for future legal documents which would further codify human rights into practice, such as the United States Bill of Rights and Geneva and Hague Conventions.

Figure 2. An artistic rendition of the signing of the Magna Carta.

International Human Rights Law

The following portion of this article provides a summary definition of the concept of of international human rights law and the predominant organizations in the international system who deal with monitoring compliance.

Essentially, international human rights law refers to “the body of international law designed to promote and protect human rights at the international, regional, and domestic levels” (USCIS, 2019). Though the concept may appear daunting, international human rights law primarily operates through the adoption of interstate treaties and customary international law, such as decisions of international courts and intergovernmental declarations and resolutions.

Such institutions include the International Court of Justice, which settles international legal disputes between states and gives advisory opinions on questions referred to it by other organizations of the United Nations (International Court of Justice). As of currently, the International Court of Justice has witnessed the submission of over 140 disputes by member states, along with over 25 requests to provide advisory opinions (UN World Court, 2021). It remains the predominant international judicial organization in which matters of human rights are discussed and decided.

Figure 3. The International Court of Justice's first inaugural meeting on 18 April 1946 in the Hague, Netherlands.

In conclusion, international human rights law is derived from the crucial concept of inherent and indivisible human rights. Recognizing the importance of inherent rights which are fundamental to the existence of human persons, human rights have evolved over time to expand beyond the scope of divine law and include a wider breadth of persons, including women, children, and various racial groups. Using this concept of human rights as a baseline, contemporary international human rights law codifies the practice into intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations such as the United Nations International Court of Justice. That being said, international human rights law can be further narrowed into the concept of international humanitarian law. This will the subject of the following article in this 101 series of international human rights law.

Bibliographical References

International human rights law raio lesson plan - USCIS. US Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2019). Retrieved from:

Sutto, M. (2019). Human rights evolution, a brief history. CoESPU. Retrieved from:,religion%2C%20and%20established%20racial%20equality . United Nations. (2021). Un 'World Court' marks 75 years of work to ensure peaceful settlement of disputes | | UN news. United Nations, from,25%20requests%20for%20advisory%20opinions .

United Nations. (n.d.). Human rights. United Nations. Retrieved from . United Nations. (n.d.). International Court of Justice. United Nations. Retrieved from

Visual Sources

Figure 1. Unknown. (1949). Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2. Unknown. (2021). An engraving of King John signing the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, England. [Drawing]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3. Unknown. (1946). The ICJ held its inaugural session on 18 April 1946 at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands. Retrieved from:,25%20requests%20for%20advisory%20opinions

Author Photo

Dana Kit

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page