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The Human Rights System 101: Regional integration and global development


The search for a series of rules, principles, and regulations capable of organizing and safeguarding those fundamental rights and provisions inherent to the human character has represented, since the dawn of time, a primary interest of humanity as a whole. Human rights emerged from an institutional standpoint with the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted after the atrocities of the Second World War to make amends for the crimes committed during the conflict, but their roots predate the 1900s and their character has evolved and morphed drastically since the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Indeed, questions concerning their ontology, scope of action, enforceability, and overall efficacy have characterized the debate surrounding the human rights system since its onset, sparking countless chances for debate and development.

This series entails 6 articles, each presenting a different question that emerged in the definition and implementation of the current human rights system, with the aim to analyze the historical and political developments that characterized this mechanism. Such analysis is fundamental in order to properly frame the current human rights system and its provisions but, given the mutable character of this notion and its different interpretations according to the geographical area and the socio-cultural background taken into consideration, the process is still subjected to constant questioning and development.

The Human Rights System 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

The Human Rights System 101: Regional Integration and Global Development

It was 1958 when Eleanor Roosevelt – one of the main promoters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – questioned herself on where human rights matter the most. In Roosevelt's view, human rights began “in small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world” (Roosevelt, E. 1958). At the time of the drafting of the UDHR, Roosevelt focused specifically on an interpretation of human rights capable of safeguarding the integrity of individuals globally – creating a regime that encompassed human rights universally. In this sense, the UDHR represented the first comprehensive international commitment outlining the basic and inalienable rights of the individual, and constituting a commitment for the members of the international community (Mugwanya, G. W. 1999). Indeed, the heritage of the Second World War created a favorable context in which the majority of countries felt compelled to institutionalize human rights and fundamental freedoms as a commitment to the international community. At the time, human rights were suddenly launched into an international perspective of collective interest and – although the UDHR is not a legally binding document – it has progressively become somewhat of a yardstick to measure the national commitment to human rights (Green, 2018). Its influential power played a pivotal role in the global mainstreaming of rights through the creation of countless other human rights instruments. Among these, the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are some of the most popular.

The vast body of norms, treaties, and commitments that emerged since the promulgation of the UDHR helped formalize the idea of human rights as universal, inalienable, and inviolable provisions that are due to every human being without distinction. Nonetheless – despite the growing interest of the intentional community toward the respect and realization of human rights – violations, omissions and grave forms of discrimination continue to take place globally (Our World In Data, 2021). Indeed, although the theoretical principles underlying the human rights project might be considered universal, their implementation is far from it. The area of implementation is the weakest in the human rights system because, to this day, commitment and implementation ultimately depend on state support (Selya, R.M. 2012). Such context created the premises for the emergence of ample disparities in the relationship between states, NGOs, and civil society in the matter of human rights. As reported by Thakur and Van Langenhove (2006), today’s world is characterized by a “patchwork of authority” in which the diffused poles of authority struggle to tackle worldwide issues like climate change, intersectional discrimination and human rights violations (Thakur, R. and Van Langenhove, L. 2006). Therefore, the coexistence of state-oriented interpretations of authority and the need to pursue global objectives created a paradox. Indeed, while the authority for tackling global problems relies on states, issues acquired more and more a transnational perspective that requires collective action (Thakur, R. and Van Langenhove, L. 2006).

Figure 1: Section 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Lemarchand, R. 2006)

In such a context, regional integration understood as a series of mechanisms aimed at helping countries overcome the divisions that constrain socio-political growth, could represent a tool for multilateral diplomacy and collective action (The World Bank, 2019). Indeed, the increased differentiation of the structures of governance worldwide created the space for regional supranational bodies to tackle the paradox that opposed local governance and global challenges. This consequently created the opportunity for regionalism to develop as a means to create structures of interdependence among different levels of policymaking and governance (Thakur, R. and Van Langenhove, L. 2006).

The concept of governance refers to the structures of power, control, and authority, as well as the means through which they are exercised, and the relationship between those wielding governance and those being subjected to it (Thakur, R. and Van Langenhove, L. 2006). Normally governance emerges in the national context, in which it is defined by the United Nations Development Programme (1997) as the exercise of economic, political, and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs. Such exercise further comprises the mechanisms, processes, and institutions to mediate the differences between interests (United Nations Development Programme, 1997b). Applying the same rationale to international relations, it would be possible to understand how global governance underscores a relationship between states, NGOs, and international civil society – attempting to develop structures of cooperation that go beyond national borders. Pursuing global governance, therefore, means promoting institutions capable of pursuing the interests of a differentiated audience of actors whose differences are mediated and whose rights and duties depend on the objectives pursued (Orback, J. 2019).

Figure 2: United Nations Office in Geneva. (Wikimedia Commons, 2016)

Nonetheless, as of today, the prerogatives of international actors started to change to include new issues which progressively required more cooperative approaches. In this sense, regional integration – which developed in the 1940s in strict relation to the post-war economic needs of many countries –started to branch out to include socio-political aspects in its integration process (Kahler et al., 2016). As such, the integrative process that once attempted to uniform economic policies started to embrace political questions like human rights. Indeed, the promotion of a global human rights regime called for greater synergy among state and non-state actors to guarantee the universal implementation of provisions capable of having transnational scope (Thakur, R. and Van Langenhove, L. 2006). The European Court of Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights represent different instances of regional human rights systems that emerged to promote localized interpretations of the universal rights engendered in instruments like the UDHR (International Justice Research Center, 2017). Each of the regional human rights systems were established under the guidance of intergovernmental organizations, setting the foundations for the identification of accountability, monitoring, and reporting mechanisms to guarantee the compliance of the member states with the different commitments.

Indeed, in the processes of institutionalization and promotion of human rights, the emergence of regional systems retraced Eleanor Roosevelt’s comments on the localization of rights. Throughout the decades, regional systems mediated between national institutions and the global human rights system. This created the premises for, on the one hand, equal access to rights provisions and, on the other, the avenues for redress for the possible violations (Mugwanya, G. W. 1999). Regional systems emerged as means to fill the gaps between the global environment and the national necessities of signatories, complementing the first by shaping national policies according to the inspirational point of view of the UDHR and the related instruments. The peculiarity of these systems is their contextual placement which allows them to be more effective than their universal counterparts. This is due to elements like geographical proximity to the stakeholders and the sharing of concerns with the local authorities (Powell, J. and Perez, C. 2011). Indeed, the legal, political, and economic identity traits shared among member states are more easily integrated into policy mechanisms through a regional perspective capable of particularising the task of human rights promotion. As reported by George William Mugwanya, prosecution appeals advisor at the International Criminal Court, within the regional arena, shared traditions create homogeneity. This then facilitates the debate on rights and the development of familiar systems of redress, fundamentally enhancing the actual promotion and protection of human rights in a perspective of global governance (Mugwanya, G. W. 1999).

Figure 3: International Criminal Court, The Hague. (Dodane, J.B. 2017)

Regional institutions play a pivotal role in the global level of implementation of human rights provisions because of the higher level of interdependency that characterizes the relations between their participants. The homogeneity in elements like geographical belonging, cultural background, religious beliefs, or language structures facilitates the development of commonly-shared approaches to the matter (Voeten, E. et al., 2016). Indeed, while human rights treaties and institutions could promote further improvement in countries that have an already-admirable track record and in which the civil society is already politically involved, regional integration might be better suited to push unwilling actors to engage more actively (Kahler et al., 2016). For example, even those entities that do not normally pursue fundamental rights might be stimulated to do so if respect for human rights is a precondition to joining regional trade agreements. The growing inclusion of rights provisions in regional trade agreements further highlights this point: the employment of human rights clauses in structures of regional economic integration represents a means to promote the betterment of human rights in the context of the signatory states (Powell, J., and Perez, C. 2011).

In this sense, the promotion and implementation of a form of global governance in the matter of human rights might benefit from differentiated forms of regional governance. Indeed, regional efforts to adapt the mechanisms put forward by treaties to the necessities of their territories could promote a wider development of human rights worldwide (Powell, J. and Perez, C. 2011). Concretely, regional human rights mechanisms could respond to the overall lack of centralization of the global system, representing an answer to the aforementioned paradox that opposes national authorities and global challenges. Regional integration, although differentiated in its scope and capacity, could represent an asset to push for global action in the protection of fundamental rights and the advancement of the regime (Voeten, E. et al., 2016).

Figure 4: Man walking in front of "Stronger Together" mural. (Kaupanger, K. 2020)

If these are the theoretical premises, their concrete realization highlights a fundamental limitation concerning the equal development of regional integration worldwide. Indeed, the disparities in the levels of commitment and in the efficacy of monitoring and reporting mechanisms between regional institutions the capacity for a global response to the human rights crisis. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, established by the African Charter in 1987, has been charged to protect and promote human rights and represented a fundamental step in the effort toward the realization of international human rights norms in the African continent (African Commission on Human and People's Rights, n.d.). The Commission played a pivotal role in the mainstreaming of human rights in the African continent. By grouping civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights under the umbrella of human rights the Commission represents the most comprehensive regional instrument to protect the indivisibility and interdependence of rights (Mugwanya, G. W. 1999). Nonetheless, the African system faces numerous challenges in expanding the range of rights protected and in guaranteeing the authority of the mechanisms implemented. Indeed, from a purely practical point of view, the omission, in the text of the Charter, of the rights to privacy or the protection from forced labor, represented a discordant element with the innovative aspects of the Charter that could instead enrich the human rights system as a whole (Mugwanya, G. W. 1999). This fundamentally hindered the development of a common sustained path towards a form of global governance capable of guaranteeing fundamental rights worldwide (Patrick-Patel, L. 2014).

The creation of instruments for regional integration, like the European Court of Human Rights or the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, could therefore potentially provide an incredibly important input in the human rights efforts globally. Indeed, it could help ease the tension between the aforementioned paradox and promote an increase in the global commitment towards human rights (Mugwanya, G. W. 1999). Nonetheless, for these results to be achieved, the international regional systems must pursue further institutional and procedural reforms to guarantee the same orientation of the different pathways toward the universal enjoyment of human rights. The perspective of global governance in the field of fundamental rights could be reinforced by the existence of differentiated systems of regional integration, but only if said integration follows communal pathways and principles (Thakur, R. and Van Langenhove, L. 2006).

Bibliographical References

African Commission on Human and People's Rights (n.d.). African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Home. [online] Available at:

[Accessed 17 Feb. 2023].

Green, C. (2018). 70 Years of Impact: Insights on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights | [online] Available at:

International Justice Research Center (2017). Regional Systems - International Justice Resource Center. [online] International Justice Resource Center. Available at:

Kahler, M., Henning, C., Bown, C., Wang, H., Voeten, E. and Williams, P. (2016). Global Order and the New Regionalism Discussion Paper Series on Global and Regional Governance. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Feb. 2023].

Mugwanya, G.W. (1999). Realizing Universal Human Rights Norms through Regional Human Rights Mechanisms: Reinvigorating the African System. Indiana International & Comparative Law Review, 10(1), pp.35–50. doi:

Orback, J. (2019). What Is Global Governance? - the Global Challenges Foundation. [online] The Global Challenges Foundation. Available at:

Our World In Data (2021). Distribution of Human Rights. [online] Our World in Data. Available at: [Accessed 15 Feb. 2023].

Patrick-Patel, L. (2014). The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights: How Effective Is This Legal Instrument in Shaping a Continental Human Rights Culture in Africa? [online] Le Petit Juriste. Available at:

Powell, S.J. and Perez, P.C. (2011). Global Laws, Local Lives: Impact of the New Regionalism on Human Rights Compliance. University of Florida Levin College of Law UF Law Scholarship Repository, [online] 17(117). Available at:

[Accessed 15 Feb. 2023].

Scheinin, M. (2009). Towards a World Court of Human Rights. [online] European University Institute. Available at: [Accessed 15 Feb. 2023].

Selya, R.M. (2012). A Geography of Human Rights Abuses. Human Rights Quarterly, [online] 34(4), pp.1045–1083. Available at:

Thakur, R. and Van Langenhove, L. (2006). Enhancing Global Governance through Regional Integration. Global Governance: a Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 12(3), pp.233–240. doi:

The World Bank (2019). Regional Integration: an Overview. [online] World Bank. Available at:

UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). 1997. Human Development Report 1997: Human Development to Eradicate Poverty. New York.

United Nations (2014). Governance and Institutions. [online] United Nations World Economic and Social Survey. Available at:

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Malhotra, G. (2020). Protesting hand-in-hand.

Figure 1: Lemarchand, R. (2006). Section 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Figure 2: Wikimedia Commons (2016). United Nations Office in Geneva.

Figure 3: Dodane, J.B. (2017). International Criminal Court, The Hague.

Figure 4: Kaupanger, K. (2020). Man walking in front of "Stronger Together" mural.


Author Photo

Niccolò Fantin

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