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abuse of human rights essay

Essay on Human Rights: Samples in 500 and 1500


  • Updated on  
  • Jun 20, 2024

Essay on Human Rights

Essay writing is an integral part of the school curriculum and various academic and competitive exams like IELTS , TOEFL , SAT , UPSC , etc. It is designed to test your command of the English language and how well you can gather your thoughts and present them in a structure with a flow. To master your ability to write an essay, you must read as much as possible and practise on any given topic. This blog brings you a detailed guide on how to write an essay on Human Rights , with useful essay samples on Human rights.

This Blog Includes:

The basic human rights, 200 words essay on human rights, 500 words essay on human rights, 500+ words essay on human rights in india, 1500 words essay on human rights, importance of human rights, essay on human rights pdf, what are human rights.

Human rights mark everyone as free and equal, irrespective of age, gender, caste, creed, religion and nationality. The United Nations adopted human rights in light of the atrocities people faced during the Second World War. On the 10th of December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Its adoption led to the recognition of human rights as the foundation for freedom, justice and peace for every individual. Although it’s not legally binding, most nations have incorporated these human rights into their constitutions and domestic legal frameworks. Human rights safeguard us from discrimination and guarantee that our most basic needs are protected.

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Before we move on to the essays on human rights, let’s check out the basics of what they are.

Human Rights

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Here is a 200-word short sample essay on basic Human Rights.

Human rights are a set of rights given to every human being regardless of their gender, caste, creed, religion, nation, location or economic status. These are said to be moral principles that illustrate certain standards of human behaviour. Protected by law , these rights are applicable everywhere and at any time. Basic human rights include the right to life, right to a fair trial, right to remedy by a competent tribunal, right to liberty and personal security, right to own property, right to education, right of peaceful assembly and association, right to marriage and family, right to nationality and freedom to change it, freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination, freedom from slavery, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of movement, right of opinion and information, right to adequate living standard and freedom from interference with privacy, family, home and correspondence.

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Check out this 500-word long essay on Human Rights.

Every person has dignity and value. One of the ways that we recognise the fundamental worth of every person is by acknowledging and respecting their human rights. Human rights are a set of principles concerned with equality and fairness. They recognise our freedom to make choices about our lives and develop our potential as human beings. They are about living a life free from fear, harassment or discrimination.

Human rights can broadly be defined as the basic rights that people worldwide have agreed are essential. These include the right to life, the right to a fair trial, freedom from torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to health, education and an adequate standard of living. These human rights are the same for all people everywhere – men and women, young and old, rich and poor, regardless of our background, where we live, what we think or believe. This basic property is what makes human rights’ universal’.

Human rights connect us all through a shared set of rights and responsibilities. People’s ability to enjoy their human rights depends on other people respecting those rights. This means that human rights involve responsibility and duties towards other people and the community. Individuals have a responsibility to ensure that they exercise their rights with consideration for the rights of others. For example, when someone uses their right to freedom of speech, they should do so without interfering with someone else’s right to privacy.

Governments have a particular responsibility to ensure that people can enjoy their rights. They must establish and maintain laws and services that enable people to enjoy a life in which their rights are respected and protected. For example, the right to education says that everyone is entitled to a good education. Therefore, governments must provide good quality education facilities and services to their people. If the government fails to respect or protect their basic human rights, people can take it into account.

Values of tolerance, equality and respect can help reduce friction within society. Putting human rights ideas into practice can help us create the kind of society we want to live in. There has been tremendous growth in how we think about and apply human rights ideas in recent decades. This growth has had many positive results – knowledge about human rights can empower individuals and offer solutions for specific problems.

Human rights are an important part of how people interact with others at all levels of society – in the family, the community, school, workplace, politics and international relations. Therefore, people everywhere must strive to understand what human rights are. When people better understand human rights, it is easier for them to promote justice and the well-being of society. 

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Here is a human rights essay focused on India.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It has been rightly proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Created with certain unalienable rights….” Similarly, the Indian Constitution has ensured and enshrined Fundamental rights for all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, religion, colour, sex or nationality. These basic rights, commonly known as human rights, are recognised the world over as basic rights with which every individual is born.

In recognition of human rights, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made on the 10th of December, 1948. This declaration is the basic instrument of human rights. Even though this declaration has no legal bindings and authority, it forms the basis of all laws on human rights. The necessity of formulating laws to protect human rights is now being felt all over the world. According to social thinkers, the issue of human rights became very important after World War II concluded. It is important for social stability both at the national and international levels. Wherever there is a breach of human rights, there is conflict at one level or the other.

Given the increasing importance of the subject, it becomes necessary that educational institutions recognise the subject of human rights as an independent discipline. The course contents and curriculum of the discipline of human rights may vary according to the nature and circumstances of a particular institution. Still, generally, it should include the rights of a child, rights of minorities, rights of the needy and the disabled, right to live, convention on women, trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation etc.

Since the formation of the United Nations , the promotion and protection of human rights have been its main focus. The United Nations has created a wide range of mechanisms for monitoring human rights violations. The conventional mechanisms include treaties and organisations, U.N. special reporters, representatives and experts and working groups. Asian countries like China argue in favour of collective rights. According to Chinese thinkers, European countries lay stress upon individual rights and values while Asian countries esteem collective rights and obligations to the family and society as a whole.

With the freedom movement the world over after World War II, the end of colonisation also ended the policy of apartheid and thereby the most aggressive violation of human rights. With the spread of education, women are asserting their rights. Women’s movements play an important role in spreading the message of human rights. They are fighting for their rights and supporting the struggle for human rights of other weaker and deprived sections like bonded labour, child labour, landless labour, unemployed persons, Dalits and elderly people.

Unfortunately, violation of human rights continues in most parts of the world. Ethnic cleansing and genocide can still be seen in several parts of the world. Large sections of the world population are deprived of the necessities of life i.e. food, shelter and security of life. Right to minimum basic needs viz. Work, health care, education and shelter are denied to them. These deprivations amount to the negation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Also Read: Human Rights Courses

Check out this detailed 1500-word essay on human rights.

The human right to live and exist, the right to equality, including equality before the law, non-discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, and equality of opportunity in matters of employment, the right to freedom of speech and expression, assembly, association, movement, residence, the right to practice any profession or occupation, the right against exploitation, prohibiting all forms of forced labour, child labour and trafficking in human beings, the right to freedom of conscience, practice and propagation of religion and the right to legal remedies for enforcement of the above are basic human rights. These rights and freedoms are the very foundations of democracy.

Obviously, in a democracy, the people enjoy the maximum number of freedoms and rights. Besides these are political rights, which include the right to contest an election and vote freely for a candidate of one’s choice. Human rights are a benchmark of a developed and civilised society. But rights cannot exist in a vacuum. They have their corresponding duties. Rights and duties are the two aspects of the same coin.

Liberty never means license. Rights presuppose the rule of law, where everyone in the society follows a code of conduct and behaviour for the good of all. It is the sense of duty and tolerance that gives meaning to rights. Rights have their basis in the ‘live and let live’ principle. For example, my right to speech and expression involves my duty to allow others to enjoy the same freedom of speech and expression. Rights and duties are inextricably interlinked and interdependent. A perfect balance is to be maintained between the two. Whenever there is an imbalance, there is chaos.

A sense of tolerance, propriety and adjustment is a must to enjoy rights and freedom. Human life sans basic freedom and rights is meaningless. Freedom is the most precious possession without which life would become intolerable, a mere abject and slavish existence. In this context, Milton’s famous and oft-quoted lines from his Paradise Lost come to mind: “To reign is worth ambition though in hell/Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

However, liberty cannot survive without its corresponding obligations and duties. An individual is a part of society in which he enjoys certain rights and freedom only because of the fulfilment of certain duties and obligations towards others. Thus, freedom is based on mutual respect’s rights. A fine balance must be maintained between the two, or there will be anarchy and bloodshed. Therefore, human rights can best be preserved and protected in a society steeped in morality, discipline and social order.

Violation of human rights is most common in totalitarian and despotic states. In the theocratic states, there is much persecution, and violation in the name of religion and the minorities suffer the most. Even in democracies, there is widespread violation and infringement of human rights and freedom. The women, children and the weaker sections of society are victims of these transgressions and violence.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights’ main concern is to protect and promote human rights and freedom in the world’s nations. In its various sessions held from time to time in Geneva, it adopts various measures to encourage worldwide observations of these basic human rights and freedom. It calls on its member states to furnish information regarding measures that comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whenever there is a complaint of a violation of these rights. In addition, it reviews human rights situations in various countries and initiates remedial measures when required.

The U.N. Commission was much concerned and dismayed at the apartheid being practised in South Africa till recently. The Secretary-General then declared, “The United Nations cannot tolerate apartheid. It is a legalised system of racial discrimination, violating the most basic human rights in South Africa. It contradicts the letter and spirit of the United Nations Charter. That is why over the last forty years, my predecessors and I have urged the Government of South Africa to dismantle it.”

Now, although apartheid is no longer practised in that country, other forms of apartheid are being blatantly practised worldwide. For example, sex apartheid is most rampant. Women are subject to abuse and exploitation. They are not treated equally and get less pay than their male counterparts for the same jobs. In employment, promotions, possession of property etc., they are most discriminated against. Similarly, the rights of children are not observed properly. They are forced to work hard in very dangerous situations, sexually assaulted and exploited, sold and bonded for labour.

The Commission found that religious persecution, torture, summary executions without judicial trials, intolerance, slavery-like practices, kidnapping, political disappearance, etc., are being practised even in the so-called advanced countries and societies. The continued acts of extreme violence, terrorism and extremism in various parts of the world like Pakistan, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Somalia, Algeria, Lebanon, Chile, China, and Myanmar, etc., by the governments, terrorists, religious fundamentalists, and mafia outfits, etc., is a matter of grave concern for the entire human race.

Violation of freedom and rights by terrorist groups backed by states is one of the most difficult problems society faces. For example, Pakistan has been openly collaborating with various terrorist groups, indulging in extreme violence in India and other countries. In this regard the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva adopted a significant resolution, which was co-sponsored by India, focusing on gross violation of human rights perpetrated by state-backed terrorist groups.

The resolution expressed its solidarity with the victims of terrorism and proposed that a U.N. Fund for victims of terrorism be established soon. The Indian delegation recalled that according to the Vienna Declaration, terrorism is nothing but the destruction of human rights. It shows total disregard for the lives of innocent men, women and children. The delegation further argued that terrorism cannot be treated as a mere crime because it is systematic and widespread in its killing of civilians.

Violation of human rights, whether by states, terrorists, separatist groups, armed fundamentalists or extremists, is condemnable. Regardless of the motivation, such acts should be condemned categorically in all forms and manifestations, wherever and by whomever they are committed, as acts of aggression aimed at destroying human rights, fundamental freedom and democracy. The Indian delegation also underlined concerns about the growing connection between terrorist groups and the consequent commission of serious crimes. These include rape, torture, arson, looting, murder, kidnappings, blasts, and extortion, etc.

Violation of human rights and freedom gives rise to alienation, dissatisfaction, frustration and acts of terrorism. Governments run by ambitious and self-seeking people often use repressive measures and find violence and terror an effective means of control. However, state terrorism, violence, and human freedom transgressions are very dangerous strategies. This has been the background of all revolutions in the world. Whenever there is systematic and widespread state persecution and violation of human rights, rebellion and revolution have taken place. The French, American, Russian and Chinese Revolutions are glowing examples of human history.

The first war of India’s Independence in 1857 resulted from long and systematic oppression of the Indian masses. The rapidly increasing discontent, frustration and alienation with British rule gave rise to strong national feelings and demand for political privileges and rights. Ultimately the Indian people, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, made the British leave India, setting the country free and independent.

Human rights and freedom ought to be preserved at all costs. Their curtailment degrades human life. The political needs of a country may reshape Human rights, but they should not be completely distorted. Tyranny, regimentation, etc., are inimical of humanity and should be resisted effectively and united. The sanctity of human values, freedom and rights must be preserved and protected. Human Rights Commissions should be established in all countries to take care of human freedom and rights. In cases of violation of human rights, affected individuals should be properly compensated, and it should be ensured that these do not take place in future.

These commissions can become effective instruments in percolating the sensitivity to human rights down to the lowest levels of governments and administrations. The formation of the National Human Rights Commission in October 1993 in India is commendable and should be followed by other countries.

Also Read: Law Courses in India

Human rights are of utmost importance to seek basic equality and human dignity. Human rights ensure that the basic needs of every human are met. They protect vulnerable groups from discrimination and abuse, allow people to stand up for themselves, and follow any religion without fear and give them the freedom to express their thoughts freely. In addition, they grant people access to basic education and equal work opportunities. Thus implementing these rights is crucial to ensure freedom, peace and safety.

Human Rights Day is annually celebrated on the 10th of December.

Human Rights Day is celebrated to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UNGA in 1948.

Some of the common Human Rights are the right to life and liberty, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom from slavery and torture and the right to work and education.

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Article contents

What helps protect human rights: human rights theory and evidence.

  • Jessica Anderson Jessica Anderson Department of Political Science, University of Missouri
  •  and  Amanda Murdie Amanda Murdie Department of International Affairs, University of Georgia
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.513
  • Published online: 24 May 2017

Empirical international relations (IR) theory developed three generalized statements regarding why human rights abuses occur. First, human rights abuses are a way for an unrestrained state, especially the executive branch and its agents, to try to control individuals and hold on to power. Second, respect for human rights is an international norm, and international socialization and pressure about this norm can, in certain situations, affect behavior. Third, the codification of human rights norms into international treaties may influence behavior but, similar to our understanding of the effect of other treaties on state behavior, states only bind themselves weakly, and certain conditions are necessary for treaties to affect human rights.

  • Human rights
  • norm life cycle
  • human rights treaties
  • international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs)
  • empirical international relations theory


Amnesty International, a leading organization specializing in advocacy to end human rights abuses, recently released accounts of horrendous abuses to political prisoners in Vietnam (Amnesty International, 2016 ). Peaceful demonstrators and outspoken minorities had been imprisoned, tortured, and “disappeared” for their beliefs and the supposed threat that they posed to the regime. Even though Vietnam ratified the United Nation’s Convention Against Torture (CAT) in 2015 , dozens of individuals are still imprisoned and tortured there for the peaceful expression of their political beliefs.

Since the end of World War II, much attention has been paid to stopping abuses like those that occurred in Vietnam. Global and regional human rights treaties have been ratified, and concerns about human rights abuses have sparked many foreign policy actions. A vibrant and connected network of human rights advocates and organizations has fought tirelessly for the abused and have expanded our understanding of what human rights means and what protections should be expected. Despite all of this, most countries in the world still have evidence of abuses within their borders.

This article examines why human rights abuse occurs and what can be done to help protect human rights. In the last 30 years, there has been an explosion of human rights–related scholarship in leading international relations (IR) journals (Murdie, 2015 ). This literature has drawn on many theoretical traditions and paradigms and has enriched both the general IR literature and more human rights–specific scholarship.

We do not attempt to review all the international relations literature on human rights abuses; other scholars have recently produced very thorough reviews of the extant literature (Davenport, 2007 ; Goodman, Jinks, & Woods, 2012 ; Hafner-Burton & Ron, 2009 ; Hafner-Burton, 2012 , 2014 Landman, 2005 ; Morgan, 2009 ; ). Instead, this article attempts to review some of the human rights empirical literature in international relations and situate this literature into a set of general theoretical statements about why human rights abuses occur. We hope that this exercise will help in improving and expanding empirical IR theory related to this topic.

In general, IR scholars have made three large-scale theoretical statements:

Human rights abuses are a way for an unrestrained state, especially the executive branch and its agents, to try to control individuals and hold on to power.

Respect for human rights is an international norm, and international socialization and pressure about this norm can affect behavior in certain situations.

The codification of human rights norms into international treaties may influence behavior but, similar to our understanding of the effect of other treaties on state behavior, states only bind themselves weakly, and certain conditions are necessary for treaties to affect human rights.

After defining human rights in more detail, we outline the empirical literature that supports these theoretical statements. To note, however, human rights research is not confined to IR or political science; rather, it is also examined through the fields of sociology, anthropology, economics, history, psychology, and law (Morgan, 2009 ). Thus, the study of human rights is an interdisciplinary study in a way that most fields within international relations are not. Within political science, human rights research reaches across the boundary between international relations and comparative politics. Full understanding of human rights situations requires understanding the domestic factors and characteristics of bureaucracies more commonly discussed in research within the comparative politics subfield. At the same time, attempts to limit or prevent human rights often involve the international community in the drafting of treaties, the foreign policy between states, and the flow of global norms about human rights practices. Thus, understanding why human rights abuses occur requires understanding the elements of both comparative politics and international relations. We see this as an advantage in the study of human rights. IR scholars can utilize theories from comparative politics and disciplines outside of political science to create a more complete understanding of human rights situations and produce research that speaks to a broad audience of scholars and individuals outside the academic world.

What Are Human Rights?

Much of our current understanding of human rights is based on international law, especially on the conception of rights included within the United Nation’s nonbinding Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948 . This document creates a list of what is now commonly accepted as individual rights, including political rights; civil rights; social, economic, and cultural rights; and more broadly conceptualized rights of development and freedom from poverty, which also fit under the umbrella term of human rights (Landman, 2006 ).

The Emphasis on Physical Integrity Rights

The UDHR specifies the rights of individuals in 30 separate articles, addressing a range of rights from the “right to life, liberty, and security of person” (art. 3) to “the right to rest and leisure” (art. 23). Our collective understanding of which rights are included as human rights has expanded over time. Recently, advocacy related to human rights has included rights related to access to the Internet and sexual minority rights [i.e., lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) rights], among others.

Although the concept of human rights includes a wide range of rights, much of the research on human rights within IR focuses on a very narrow set of rights, often referred to as physical integrity or bodily integrity rights . In addition, most of the focus within international relations has focused specifically on abuses of these rights on citizens of a specific state by governmental actors from this state. Abuses by fellow citizens or nonstate actors, like corporations or rebel movements, have often been ignored. 1 Similarly, abuses by government actors beyond their own state borders have also received little attention in the IR scholarship, despite horrific accounts of abuses by military interveners and peacekeepers, among others.

Physical integrity rights are conceptualized as “freedom from” rights, and they typically include being free from extrajudicial killing, the use of torture, political imprisonment, and disappearance. To respect these rights, governments need only restrain from violating them; hence, they are sometimes called negative rights . On the other hand, in order to respect positive rights , like the right to education or the right to health, the state must provide resources or services. The study of these positive rights has primarily been done by political economists, often without a human rights frame. It is worth noting, however, that there is a growing number of IR studies on rights beyond physical integrity rights, like women’s rights and labor rights (e.g., Detraz & Peksen, 2016 ; Peksen & Blanton, 2017 ). This expansion of the types of rights examined by IR scholars holds great promise for a more encompassing theory of human rights practices and for additional inquiry into why some states may perform well on certain rights, but not on others.

Many human rights scholars rely on a small number of quantitative measures to capture physical integrity rights practices. One of the most prominent is the CIRI Physical Integrity Rights Index (Cingranelli, Richards, & Clay, 2014 ). This composite measure captures observable state practices regarding the use of torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and political imprisonment during a given year (Cingranelli & Richards, 2010 ). The Political Terror Scale (PTS) is a similar measure that is widely used (Wood & Gibney, 2010 ). Both of these measures are created by using information from yearly reports released by the U.S. State Department and Amnesty International. The use of such measures makes it much easier to conduct empirical analyses across a global sample of states for a long period of time. However, it is important to remember that these measures capture only a small range of human rights practices. Although this is a limitation, current research has allowed scholars to understand many of the reasons why states abuse these physical integrity rights and propose solutions to prevent abuses. Similarly, these measures may not account for the changing standard of accountability over time, leading scholars to conclude (erroneously) that there have been no improvements in state practices over time (Fariss, 2014 ). 2

Human Rights Abuses and the State

One of the most common assumptions in international relations and comparative politics concerns the desire of a regime leader to remain in power (Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson, & Morrow, 2003 ; Chiozza & Goemans, 2004 ). A leader makes calculated decisions to remain in power or to ensure that his or her political party does. Human rights abuses are one “tool” that leaders can use to try to hold on to political power. If a regime is threatened, a leader can use his or her control of security forces to violate the human rights of citizens within the state. Abuses are designed to increase the cost that a possible dissident would face for violently (or even nonviolently) challenging the leader, hopefully cutting off dissent before it occurs (Ritter & Conrad, 2016 ). Davenport ( 2007 , p. 7) calls this the “law of coercive responsiveness.” In general, the law leads us to expect to see repression increase as opposition to the regime leadership increases within a state, and to expect to see repression increase as the regime faces threats to its power from abroad, especially in cases involving international war. States engaged in international war must respond to these external threats and any internal threats at the same time, constraining the resources available to the state. This means that even states that otherwise may have granted concessions to citizens will be more likely to respond to their demands with repression while engaged in international conflict due to the need to commit resources to facing international foes (Rasler, 1986 ). In general, this logic explains why there is such a strong empirical link between international and civil war and repression; when a state is threatened militarily, a government will respond with repression in order to control the population, try to extract information from that population that could help it remain in power, or both (Poe & Tate, 1994 ).

Given that the law of coercive responsiveness would lead us to expect an increase in repression whenever a leader is threatened, perhaps the question is not so much why states abuse human rights as it is why some states abuse the human rights of their citizens more than other states. Abuses are a common response by a threatened leader who has the power to control security forces. It is with this thought in mind that we now turn to a variety of state characteristics that are associated with differences in human rights performance and reflect this underlying theoretical logic.

Regime Type

It has long been suggested that democratic regimes are associated with better human rights, and this suggestion has received a great deal of empirical support. There are a number of explanations for why democracies might have greater respect for human rights. First, democracies allow the peaceful turnover of power. The political institutions of a democratic government are composed of citizens, and they are approved by citizens through the process of voting. Elections provide citizens with a legitimate channel through which to remove leaders from power without resorting to political violence (Davenport, 1999 ). When leaders regularly face the possibility of being removed from power by their constituents, they are more beholden to their constituents’ wishes. This will force leaders to show greater respect for human rights because there is a regular risk of being removed from office if citizens are unhappy with their leadership and their use of repression.

However, not all democratic regimes are equal (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005 ). Simply holding an election does not necessarily make a state a democracy. If elections are not free and fair, then they fail to hold leaders accountable or to convey the grievances of the population to the regime’s leadership. Only when elections are free and fair with more than one choice do they force leaders to be accountable to their citizens and potentially limit human rights abuses. Further, there is much research questioning whether elections alone are enough to affect human rights practices (Cingranelli & Filippov, 2010 ; Davenport, 1997 ; Richards, 1999 ; ). Richards and Gelleny ( 2007 ), for example, find that national legislative elections improve human rights only in the year following the election. Presidential elections are associated with less respect for human rights, something that Richard and Gelleny ( 2007 , p. 520) claim is linked to the “rigidity and winner-take-all structure of many presidential systems.”

Elections are only one aspect of democracies that has been potentially linked to better human rights practices. Institutional constraints and channels of regularized communication also matter. Democracy is often conceptualized not only by free elections, but also by constraints on an executive’s power. As Hafner-Burton, Hyde, and Jablonski ( 2012 ) show, an unconstrained leader may be more likely to use violence around an election. Judicial constraints have been found to limit the use of torture; although these same constraints may make leaders less likely to ratify the CAT (Powell & Staton, 2009 ). Conrad and Moore ( 2010 ), however, conclude that institutions that constrain executives, such as freedom of expression or institutional checks, may not be enough to stop torture when a regime is threatened. Recent work has highlighted how the creation of national human rights ombudsmen or institutional offices can constrain executives by providing a regularzed way for abuses to be publicized and adjudicated (Smith, 2006 ; Welch, 2017 ).

Democracies have more channels for communication and compromise between regime leaders and the opposition than do autocracies, meaning that there are usually more available alternatives to repression that would still limit the possibility of threat to the leadership (Henderson, 1991 ). Political opposition is theorized to develop through grievances from citizens who feel that they are receiving less than they expect and that the government is responsible for their plight (Gurr, 1968 ). In democracies, citizens have more institutionalized channels through which to get their grievances heard by the regime. Citizens in democracies are also much more likely to have their demands met, as leaders in democracies that do not address such grievances are unlikely to stay in office. Citizens in autocracies may demand greater participation in decision-making, greater freedom in criticizing leadership, or pressure for more transparent government, but these calls for reform are unlikely to be met, as that would require autocratic leaders to relinquish power. Further, autocracies draw their power from a very small group of political elites and must provide private goods to these elites in order to stay in power. Democratic leaders have a greater incentive to pursue policies that benefit large segments of society, as they need the political support of a much larger group (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2003 ). As demands are less likely to be met though concessions in autocracies, political opposition is more likely to be handled with repression (Davis & Ward, 1990 ).

When opposition threatens the power of autocratic leaders, who may not depend at all on winning the votes of members of the opposition, they will likely use repression in an attempt to silence this opposition; this was part of what Davenport ( 2007 , p. 7) calls the “law of coercive responsiveness.” However, as he continues, there is a “puzzle” (p. 8) about whether the abuse will actually limit dissent: even though leaders utilize repression to coerce political opposition into submission, these actions can paradoxically incite further opposition. This reveals an endogenous relationship between protest and repression that is found in many autocratic states. Political opposition feeds into higher degrees of repression, which increases political opposition, leading the cycle to repeat (Pierskalla, 2010 ; Rasler, 1996 ; Ritter, 2014 ; Thoms & Ron, 2007 ). Repression also increases the grievances formed by citizens, possibly causing them to engage in more violent forms of opposition. When repression against citizens is severe, it can lead to terrorism against the state and even full-fledged civil war (Bell, Cingranelli, Murdie, & Caglayan, 2013 ; Thoms & Ron, 2007 ). In response, the government will utilize more severe forms of repression in an attempt to quash the rebellion, continuing until either the opposition is completely eradicated or the government is forced from power.

Another argument for the empirical connection between democracy and better human rights performance centers on the norms and expectations of behavior in democratic regimes. Democratic regimes have strong norms of nonviolence; these norms could influence how leaders in democratic regimes use violence, both domestically and internationally (Hegre, 2001 ; Maoz & Russett, 1993 ; Risse-Kappen, 1995 ). Research also suggests that better human rights practices domestically may create norms of engagement that limit international conflict (Caprioli & Trumbore, 2003 , 2006 ; Peterson & Graham, 2011 ; Sobek, Abouharb, & Ingram, 2006 ; Tomz & Weeks, 2016 ).

Although there are many empirical theories about the relationship between democracy and human rights practices, extant research suggests a few important caveats. First, this relationship is not necessarily linear. Scholars have noted that complete autocracies—those that we would expect to exercise the most political repression—tend to exercise relatively little repression (Davenport & Armstrong, 2004 ; Fein, 1995 ). Fein ( 1995 , p. 170) argues that there is “more murder in the middle,” in that there is a U-shaped relationship between regime type and repression, suggesting that states that are neither strong democracies nor strong autocracies have the greatest likelihood to use repression. Davenport and Armstrong ( 2004 ) point out, however, that it is more of a threshold relationship, with only consolidated democracies limiting repression.

Second, just as not all democracies are equal in their human rights performance, there also are differences between authoritarian regimes. Vreeland ( 2008 ) finds that dictatorships with multiple political parties, indicative of shared power, are more likely to both commit torture and ratify the CAT. Vreeland ( 2008 ) argues that this is due to how shared power emboldens potential dissidents, creating opportunities for torture, but also likely leading to concessions like treaty ratification. Conrad ( 2011 ) finds, however, that effective judiciaries can constrain dictators in their use of torture.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that democracy and human rights, especially the physical integrity rights most typically studied by IR scholars, are conceptually related. Hill ( 2016 ) argues that some definitions of democracy include freedom from repression as a key component, cautioning scholars to be careful about their definition of democracy and that this definition is conceptually distinct from physical integrity rights performance.

State Wealth

Beyond regime type, one of the most consistent findings within the literature on human rights suggests that wealthy states abuse human rights less often than poor states. 3 However, scholars have disagreed on exactly why economic development is associated with better protection of human rights. First, wealthy states might have less need to use repression. As Henderson ( 1991 ) states, we expect to see fewer grievances in wealthy states, since citizens should be more satisfied with their standard of living. As discussed previously, repression is often used as a response to opposition, making it unnecessary when opposition is lacking. Also, wealthier states have a greater ability to grant concessions to citizens in the form of goods and services rather than resorting to repression (Conrad, 2011 ; Davenport, 2007 ). Thus, wealthier states should see less political opposition and also have means of dealing with opposition other than resorting to repression.

Economic development, especially development tied to globalization, is also linked to changes in the way that society is structured within a state, which can affect human rights practices. Richards, Gelleny, and Sacko ( 2001 ) discuss the two main schools that provide expectations about the relation between globalized economic development and human rights practices, referred to as the liberal neoclassical and dependency schools. The liberal neoclassical school suggests that a globalized economy will lead to enhanced wealth across a society, leading to the creation of a middle class. When the middle class develops greater wealth, they are able to devote more time and resources to their demands against the state. This access to greater resources is necessary for a social opposition movement to succeed (Zald & McCarthy, 1987 ). While this increase in the strength of opposition may initially lead to enhanced use of repression, eventually the government will be unable to effectively quash opposition that is well funded and supported throughout society. Thus, grievances in countries that are amassing wealth are more likely to be addressed by governments, and human rights behavior is more likely to improve.

The second main school that links a globalized economy and human rights practices is the dependency school, which argues that poor states often do not evenly distribute the gains from globalization to the general population, instead concentrating increased wealth in the hands of political elites. This allows these elites to expand their use of repression as a response to political opposition, increasing human rights violations. In addition, by increasing the wealth of only the elites, those living in poverty develop stronger grievances about their deprivation, leading to more low-level opposition as a response, followed by more repression (Davenport, 2007 ).

Dependency theory is a particularly powerful tool in explaining the human rights records of states that draw their wealth from natural resources such as oil (DeMeritt & Young, 2013 ). Oil is extremely expensive to extricate, meaning that the ability to control oilfields is limited to those with substantial economic and human resources. This, coupled with the tremendous wealth that can be gained from the sale of oil, provides a unique opportunity for governments in such states to greatly enhance the wealth of a small group of political elites. Research supports dependency theory in oil-rich states, showing that such states have significantly higher levels of human rights abuses than poor states that do not have oil wealth (DeMeritt & Young, 2013 ).

These two schools may seem contradictory, but they can be understood as being complementary to each other. The liberal neoclassical school holds that economic development leads to the formation of a middle class, but this middle class cannot form in states where wealth is isolated in the hands of the elite. Only when wealth is distributed across society and can lead to the development of a middle class will we see opposition movements that are powerful enough to effectively demand changes in human rights practices.

State Capacity

There are many similarities between theories of state wealth and human rights and those of state capacity and human rights. State capacity can be thought of as the centralized power within a state, and weak states are characterized by a lack of centralized power. Englehart ( 2009 ) describes weak states as those with low ability to collect taxes, high corruption, and/or a lack of law and order. Some scholars have captured state capacity with indicators of economic development, implying that wealthy states are more capable than others (Hendrix, 2010 ).

Many scholars have found that capable states are less likely to abuse physical integrity rights (Englehart, 2009 ; Cole, 2015 ; Young, 2009 ). State capacity is necessary to be able to monitor the behavior of security forces and other government agents. Human rights abuses can occur not because they were authorized by the regime leadership, but because state agents are not trained and/or monitored. Without training and monitoring, human rights abuses often occur as part of control or interrogation tactics (Muñoz, 2009 ). A capable state can limit these unauthorized abuses, limiting the overall levels of human rights abuses within the state.

The relationship between the state and its agents can be understood through principal-agent theory, in which the state acts as the principal and holds the authority to command security agents (Englehart, 2009 ). However, agents do not necessarily follow the commands of the principal. Weak states lack the ability to provide oversight of state agents, making them more independent. This can make it difficult for weak states to change human rights practices, even when they have a desire to do so. As Cole ( 2015 ) explains, many states that sign human rights treaties have the desire to improve practices but lack the ability to enforce new standards among state agents. This highlights the idea that human rights abuses are not always state-sanctioned; in fact, they often directly contradict state policy.

State capacity also affects the perceived need to resort to repression. Strong state capacity can prevent political dissatisfaction from erupting into violent political unrest. Weak states (those with an unstable hold on state power) are inherently more threatened by opposition and will thus resort to more resorting to human rights abuses to control the population (Young, 2009 ). Limited state capacity is also tied to the emergence of violent rebel groups (Fearon & Laitin, 2003 ). This makes weak states more susceptible to civil war, and civil war is linked to increases in human rights violations by the state (Poe & Tate, 1994 ).

Human Rights and International Dynamics

In the previous section, we examined how characteristics of the state (namely, its regime type, its economic wealth, and its capacity) matter for its human rights performance. The basic insight from this research is that human rights abuses occur as a mechanism of population control when a regime or its agents are unrestrained by domestic institutions, an organized and developed domestic opposition, or both. However, human rights concerns are not a wholly domestic matter. The rights outlined in the UDHR were the result of international collaboration and joint advocacy efforts. They fit the classic definition of a norm: a “standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998 , p. 889). The protection of human rights norms since the UDHR’s crafting has been heavily influenced by international dynamics and actors. Foreign policy actions of states, transnational organizations of all stripes, and the involvement of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) can pressure and socialize states to adopt human rights norms. However, these actions can also backfire, leading to an often-unintended worsening of human rights conditions. We explore these dynamics next.

Norm Entrepreneurs and Advocacy Actors

The adoption of human rights language and the internalization of human rights ideals are the results of a process of normative development and diffusion. Both in the case of now well-accepted norms (like bodily integrity rights) and in the case of newer and developing norms (like sexual minority rights or the right to development), norm entrepreneurs help in articulating and spreading these human rights ideas. According to Finnemore and Sikkink’s ( 1998 ) theory of the norm life cycle, these entrepreneurs work to get sympathetic regime leaders and other key constituents to adopt a norm as a general expectation of behavior. This larger group then helps in codifying and socializing other state actors about the norm. Finnemore and Sikkink ( 1998 , p. 900) see IGOs as important at this stage; the norm is “institutionalized in international rules.” If a critical mass of supporters is reached, often requiring the support of key states, a tipping point occurs, where the norm cascades and additional state and nonstate actors are socialized to adopt the norm.

It is at this stage in the norm socialization process where international actors often use a host of techniques and tactics to try to pressure governments to change their behavior. Advocates can point out that “legitimate” states do not abuse human rights (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998 , p. 902). Material and nonmaterial carrots and sticks can be used to pressure a state to change its behavior. In some situations, this process of socialization can lead to the state “internalizing” the norm, giving it “taken-for-granted” status (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998 , p. 904).

Although Finnemore and Sikkink ( 1998 )’s theory of the norm life cycle is often not explicitly mentioned in current empirical work on how international actors influence domestic human rights practices, it aptly applies. International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, are often critical actors at the early stages of the life cycle. They help in spreading or educating local populations about a norm, as well as being crucial to getting the norm on the international agenda. Once key states have adopted the norm and it has been institutionalized, INGOs work to bring abuses to the attention of sympathetic states and advocates. The media attention that INGOs bring to abusive regimes, often termed “shaming and blaming” or “naming and shaming” by scholars, can be key to getting third-party states and INGOs to start pressuring the country to change their human rights practices.

INGOs can also help heighten domestic pressure on the regime. This combination of domestic and international pressure is what Keck and Sikkink ( 1998 ) term a transnational advocacy network . Later work by Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink ( 1999 , 2013 ) further laid out the iterative process through which advocates work to socialize states about human rights; this process was named the spiral model . In this model, if international pressure is concentrated on an abusive regime, “tactical concessions” can be made by the abusive regime, leading to some limited and short-term improvements in human rights practices and, perhaps, the adoption of human rights laws (Risse & Sikkink 1999 , p. 12). If pressure continues, these concessions can turn into internalized human rights norms, completing the norm life cycle.

In line with these theoretical arguments, human rights INGOs have been linked to changes in human rights opinions and mobilization (Ausderan, 2014 ; Davis, Murdie, & Steinmetz, 2012 ; McEntire, Leiby, & Krain, 2015 ; Murdie & Bhasin, 2011 ). Their “naming and shaming” activities have also been linked to many forms of international pressure and involvement, including humanitarian intervention (Murdie & Peksen, 2013a ), international sanctions (Murdie & Peksen, 2013b ), drops in foreign direct investment (Barry, Clay, & Flynn, 2013 ), trade (Peterson, Murdie, & Asal, 2017 ), and the bypassing of foreign aid (Dietrich & Murdie, 2017 ). Some studies have found direct links between shaming by human rights INGOs and drops in certain human rights abuses (DeMeritt, 2012 ; Krain, 2012 ; Murdie, 2014 ), although this relationship has also been found to be conditional on domestic and/or international mobilization (Murdie & Davis, 2012 ) and domestic regime type (Hendrix & Wong, 2013 ; Murdie, 2014 ).

Worth mentioning, there are concerns that shaming of one type of abuse by human rights INGOs and IGOs could lead states to change their abusive tactics (DeMeritt, Conrad, & Fariss, 2016 ; Hafner-Burton, 2008 ). Further, there is work that is highly critical of certain behaviors of INGOs, highlighting the negative consequences of their often-overlooked, nonprincipled behavior (Clifford, 2005 ; Cooley & Ron, 2002 ; Murdie, 2014 ). Further work is necessary to understand the conditions when INGOs and other advocates are most likely to be successful and when they are likely to be ineffective or counterproductive to human rights goals.

State and IGO Foreign Policy Actions

There is a growing body of empirical work that looks at whether certain foreign policy actions improve human rights in a targeted state. Although this work does occasionally find that international actions can improve certain human rights practices, there is much work that shows that some international pressure tactics are counterproductive to human rights goals. To the extent that these actions are encouraged or influenced by human rights advocates, this could diminish the overall effects of advocates on human rights practices (Allendoerfer & Murdie, 2015 ).

On the positive side, there is some research that finds that certain types of foreign military interventions can improve certain human rights practices. For example, Krain ( 2005 ) finds that foreign military interventions against the perpetrator can help limit the severity of mass killings. DeMeritt ( 2015 ) concludes that interventions in support of the government can limit the onset of mass killings. Murdie and Davis ( 2010 ) find that only peacekeeping interventions with a strong humanitarian focus can improve human rights in countries after civil wars. However, Peksen ( 2012 ) finds that foreign military interventions do not generally improve human rights.

Another potential positive international action for human rights improvement is the support that international actors provide for transitional justice mechanisms, like the use of truth commissions after civil wars or human rights atrocities. Many studies have found that these mechanisms, especially in certain combinations, can improve some human rights outcomes, even after accounting for the factors that led to the implementation of these mechanisms in the first place (Dancy & Wiebelhaus-Brahm, 2015 ; Kim & Sikkink, 2010 ; Olsen, Payne, & Reiter, 2010 ; Polizzi, 2016 ).

On the negative side, however, there are many international foreign policy actions that are not associated with improved human rights. Foreign aid is not often associated with improved human rights (Barratt, 2007 ) and repressive regimes are rarely punished for poor human rights records (Esarey & DeMeritt, 2016 ; Nielsen, 2013 ). Economic sanctions can exasperate human rights abuses (Peksen, 2009 ; Wood, 2008 ). Actions by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank often harm human rights (Abouharb & Cingranelli, 2007 ). Most of this work explains the negative or null findings as the unintended consequences of international foreign policy action. These actions can limit the general public’s ability or willingness to pressure their leaders and can make abusive leaders feel threatened, heightening their desire to use repressive practices to stay in power. Another important issue in this research concerns the selection of states to receive international action and the geopolitical concerns that can complicate whether these actions are designed with human rights goals.

In short, there is a well-established theoretical lens through which to examine how international actors influence the adoption and internalization of human rights norms. Although much current empirical work has shown that advocacy actors (particularly human rights INGOs) do influence human rights outcomes in the ways outlined in the extant theoretical literature, there is much work to be done to understand the types of international foreign policy pressure that can stop human rights abuses.

Human Rights Treaties

The previous section on how international pressure is associated with human rights practices ignores an important international pressure source: international human rights law. This was intentional; the international human rights treaty regime is a very specific type of international pressure that does not nicely conform to the theoretical and empirical literature concerning many of the international foreign policy actions discussed earlier in this article. Instead, the study of how the international human rights treaty regime influences human rights practices has drawn heavily on earlier theoretical arguments on international cooperation and compliance ( Abbott, Keohane, Moravcsik, Slaughter, & Snidal, 2000 ; Downs, Rocke, & Barsoom, 1996 ; Morrow, 1994 ; von Stein, 2005 ) and the role of domestic institutions in encouraging compliance with international agreements (Dai, 2005 ).

Although much of the work within this area has focused on the human rights treaties drafted within the United Nations (UN) that followed the UDHR, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or the CAT, which we refer to here as UN human rights treaties , there is also a rich literature on regional human rights treaties and courts (Hawkins & Jacoby, 2010 ; Helfer & Voeten, 2014 ; Hillebrecht, 2012 ; Tallberg, 2002 ), as well as a growing literature on the International Criminal Court (Chapman & Chaudoin, 2013 ; Ritter & Wolford, 2012 ). Due to space constraints, the discussion here focuses on the literature concerning UN human rights treaties, where there has recently been a surge of empirical work concerning whether treaty ratification affects human rights practices.

Many early empirical works argued and found that various UN international human rights treaties are not generally associated with unconditional improvements in various human rights practices (Hafner-Burton & Tsutsui, 2005 ; Hathaway, 2002 ; Keith, 1999 ). As such, there was much early evidence that UN human rights treaties alone were not sufficient to lead to greater respect for human rights. In line with general arguments on the limits of international cooperation, the existing treaty system was created with weak enforcement mechanisms and states are unlikely to voluntarily bind themselves in ways that would limit their ability to control their populations. There are tremendous issues of self-selection as well: states may be ratifying treaties after a war or as part of their transition to democracy. As such, it is difficult to ascertain whether any improvements in human rights practices are causally linked to the treaty or are linked to the underlying conditions that led the state to ratify the treaty in the first place.

Much of the scholarship that followed has (a) taken issues of self-selection seriously, (b) examined the domestic conditions that could make treaties more likely to affect human rights practices (Conrad & Ritter, 2013 ; Hill, 2010 ; Lupu, 2013 ; Neumayer, 2005 ; Simmons, 2009 ), or both. As to the first issue, many studies are using advanced statistical treatment effects or “matching” techniques to account for the underlying self-selection issue. Some of these studies have found that certain treaties cause improvements in certain human rights, and explanations have been given for these unique causal effects. For example, Hill ( 2010 ) finds that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) causes better human rights performance on women’s political rights, something Hill ( 2010 ) explains is due to the nonthreatening nature of women’s political rights to the regime leadership. Lupu ( 2013 ) uses a slightly different method to account for self-selection and finds that CEDAW causes improved women’s political, social, and economic rights.

The newer literature has also found that treaties can be effective in some situations. In line with the spiral model outlined previously, Neumayer ( 2005 ) finds, for example, that treaties are associated with improved human rights in democratic regimes and where there are large numbers of INGOs with members present within the state. Similarly, Simmons ( 2009 ) finds that treaties can be a useful tool for dissidents to use to try to get concessions from a repressive regime. And, as mentioned, Powell and Staton ( 2009 ) highlight the utility of an independent judiciary in leading states where the CAT is ratified to lessen their use of torture. Recent work by Conrad and Ritter ( 2013 ) connects the effectiveness of treaties to the characteristics of the judiciary and the security of the leader.

Although these findings provide a small glimmer of hope for the usefulness of the international human rights regime in certain situations, Fariss ( 2014 ) argues that there may be more reasons to be hopeful. As mentioned, Fariss ( 2014 ) contends that there is a changing standard of accountability for physical integrity rights abuses over time. Using his corrected measure, Fariss ( 2014 , 2017a ) shows a general association between treaty ratification and improved human rights practices. Cingranelli and Filippov ( 2017 ), however, question the empirical validity of this finding, arguing that the Fariss ( 2014 ) results are time dependent. Nonetheless, future work should examine how changing standards of accountability (some changing standards perhaps even aided by the human rights regime) affect the relationship between treaty ratification and human rights practices.

Why do state actors abuse human rights? In this article, we outlined three stylized theoretical statements that are supported in the empirical literature:

Respect for human rights is an international norm, and international socialization and pressure about this norm can, in certain situations, affect behavior.

The codification of human rights norms into international treaties may influence behavior but, like our understanding of the effect of other treaties on state behavior, states only bind themselves weakly and certain conditions are necessary for treaties to affect human rights.

This is an especially great juncture in the study of human rights. First, more detailed and rich data are now available; this data will allow future scholars to examine rights beyond the conventional focus on physical integrity violations by state actors and allow much more nuance in the particularities of the abuse and the abuser (e.g., Conrad, Haglund, & Moore, 2014 ; Cornett, Gibney, & Haschke, 2016 ). In addition, automated events data also hold much promise for near real-time analysis and for more nuanced study of the state-society dynamics that exasperate human rights abuses (Boschee et al., 2015 ; Fariss et al., 2015 ; Quinn, Monroe, Colaresi, Crespin, & Radev, 2010 ). The combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques also will continue to contribute to the breadth and depth of our knowledge on why abuses occur (Hafner-Burton & Ron, 2009 ).

Second, advances in empirical techniques now allow scholars to take self-selection seriously and examine more directly the causal process connecting certain interventions and institutions to changes in human rights outcomes (Allendoerfer & Murdie, 2015 ; Hill, 2010 ; Lupu, 2013 ; Murdie & Peksen, 2013b ). These techniques will help us determine how certain actions could mediate the effects of advocacy, or perhaps lead to unintended consequences that could harm human rights.

Third, a growing number of scholars are focusing on public opinion related to human rights (Ausderan, 2014 ; Bracic, 2016 ; Murdie & Purser, 2017 ; Ron, Golden, Crow, & Pandya, 2017 ; Wallace, 2013 ). Although these studies have not yet been extended to focusing on how public opinion relates to human rights outcomes in a cross-national sample of states, work is this area is critical for building our microfoundations for how human rights improvements occur and the potential role of public opinion in this process.

Finally, there have been recent advances in the practice of human rights promotion and the strategies of human rights advocates. Human rights performance within a country could be influenced by current increases in training on nonviolent resistance, a renewed focus on transitional justice and nonstate actors, and the use of technology to aid in the recording of abuses. Future studies should incorporate these advances into our theoretical understanding of the process by which human rights improve. The efficacy of these tactics should also be tested empirically.

In sum, the existing IR literature on why states abuse human rights has highlighted the nuanced relationships between international and domestic factors and human rights practices. There are few laws in human rights theories, but the works discussed in this article do point to a general theory of why states abuse human rights. The literature draws heavily on theories related to domestic constraints on leaders, on how norms diffuse, and on when international agreements affect state behavior. By drawing on this generalized set of knowledge, as well as current advances in the field, future work holds much potential to contribute to both our scholarly understanding of human rights practices and the growing practice of human rights advocacy outside academia.

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1. Recently, principal investigators of the Political Terror Scale (PTS) have introduced a new measure of violence by nonstate actors: the Societal Violence Scale (SVS). As the authors of this scale remark in their explanation of the scale, the role of the state in abuses by nonstate actors is not trivial: “the state is obliged not only to refrain from human rights abuses itself, but also has the duty to prevent abuses by third parties, including private actors, and to take positive measures for the provision of rights to everyone under the state’s jurisdiction” (Cornett, Gibney, & Haschke, 2016 , n.p.).

2. For more discussion about this still controversial idea, see Clark and Sikkink ( 2013 ), Richards ( 2016 ), Fariss ( 2017a , 2017b ), and Cingranelli and Filippov ( 2017 ).

3. It is necessary for economic wealth to be distributed throughout society before we can expect to see a link between economic development and improved human rights practices. As such, a high gross domestic product (GDP), coupled with a low GDP per capita, reflect a society that has not achieved economic advancement throughout the population. When we refer to “wealthy states,” we are discussing states with a high GDP coupled with a relatively high GDP per capita.

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abuse of human rights essay

"Why Human Rights?": Reflection by Eleni Christou

abuse of human rights essay

This post is the first installment from UChicago Law's International Human Rights Law Clinic in a series titled — The Matter of Human Rights. In this 16-part series, law students examine, question and reflect on the historical, ideological, and normative roots of the human rights system, how the system has evolved, its present challenges and future possibilities. Eleni Christou is a third year in the Law School at the University of Chicago.

Why Human Rights?

By: Eleni Christou University of Chicago Law School Class of 2019

When the term “human rights” is used, it conjures up, for some, powerful images of the righteous fight for the inalienable rights that people have just by virtue of being human. It is Martin Luther King Jr. before the Washington monument as hundreds of thousands gather and look on; it is Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom; or a 16-year-old Malala telling her story, so others like her may be heard. But what is beyond these archetypes? Does the system work? Can we make it work better? Is it even the right system for our times? In other words, why human rights?

Human rights are rights that every person has from the moment they are born to the moment they die. They are things that everyone is entitled to, such as life, liberty, freedom of expression, and the right to education, just by virtue of being human. People can never lose these rights on the basis of age, sex, nationality, race, or disability. Human rights offer us a principled framework, rooted in normative values meant for all nations and legal orders. In a world order in which states/governments set the rules, the human rights regime is the counterweight, one concerned with and focused on the individual. In other words, we need human rights because it provides us a way of evaluating and challenging national laws and practices as to the treatment of individuals.

The foundational human right text for our modern-day system is the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights . Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December, 1948, this document lays out 30 articles which define the rights each human is entitled to. These rights are designed to protect core human values and prohibit institutions and practices that are contrary to the enjoyment of the rights. Rights often complement each other, and at times, can be combined to form new rights. For example, humans have a right to liberty, and also a right to be free from slavery, two rights which complement and reinforce each other. Other times, rights can be in tension, like when a person’s right to freedom of expression infringes upon another’s right to freedom from discrimination.

In this post, I’ll provide an example of how the human rights system has been used to do important work. The international communities’ work to develop the law and organize around human rights principles to challenge and sanction the apartheid regime in South Africa provides a valuable illustration of how the human rights system can be used successfully to alleviate state human rights violations that previously would have been written off as a domestic matter.

From 1948 to 1994, South Africa had a system of racial segregation called ‘ apartheid ,’ literally meaning ‘separateness.’ The minority white population was committing blatant human rights violations to maintain their control over the majority black population, and smaller multiethnic and South Asian communities. This system of apartheid was codified in laws at every level of the country, restricting where non-whites could live, work, and simply be. Non-whites were stripped of  voting rights ,  evicted from their homes  and forced into segregated neighborhoods, and not allowed to travel out of these neighborhoods without  passes . Interracial marriage was forbidden, and transport and civil facilities were all segregated, leading to extremely inferior services for the majority of South Africans. The horrific conditions imposed on non-whites led to  internal resistance movements , which the white ruling class responded to with  extreme violence , leaving thousands dead or imprisoned by the government.

While certain global leaders expressed concern about the Apartheid regime in South Africa, at first, most (including the newly-formed UN) considered it a domestic affair. However, that view changed in 1960 following the  Sharpeville Massacre , where 69 protesters of the travel pass requirement were murdered by South African police. In 1963, the United Nations Security Council passed  Resolution 181 , which called for a voluntary arms embargo against South Africa, which was later made mandatory. The Security Council condemned South Africa’s apartheid regime and encouraged states not to “indirectly [provide] encouragement . . . [of] South Africa to perpetuate, by force, its policy of apartheid,” by participating in the embargo. During this time, many countries, including the United States, ended their arms trade with South Africa. Additionally, the UN urged an oil embargo, and eventually  suspended South Africa  from the General Assembly in 1974.

In 1973, the UN General Assembly passed the  International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid , and it came into force in 1976. This convention made apartheid a crime against humanity. It expanded the prohibition of apartheid and similar policies outside of the South African context, and laid the groundwork for international actions to be taken against any state that engaged in these policies. This also served to further legitimize the international response to South Africa’s apartheid regime.

As the state-sanctioned violence in South Africa intensified, and the global community came to understand the human rights violation being carried out on a massive scale, countries worked domestically to place trade sanctions on South Africa, and many divestment movements gained popular support. International sports teams refused to play in South Africa and cut ties with their sports federations, and many actors engaged in cultural boycotts. These domestic actions worked in tandem with the actions taken by the United Nations, mirroring the increasingly widespread ideology that human rights violations are a global issue that transcend national boundaries, but are an international concern of all peoples.

After years of domestic and international pressure, South African leadership released the resistance leader Nelson Mandela in 1990 and began negotiations for the dismantling of apartheid. In 1994, South Africa’s apartheid officially ended with the first general elections. With universal suffrage, Nelson Mandela was elected president.

In a  speech to the UN General Assembly , newly elected Nelson Mandela recognized the role that the UN and individual countries played in the ending of apartheid, noting these interventions were a success story of the human rights system. The human rights values embodied in the UDHR, the ICSPCA, and numerous UN Security Council resolutions, provided an external normative and legal framework by which the global community could identify unlawful state action and hold South Africa accountable for its system of apartheid. The international pressure applied via the human rights system has been considered a major contributing factor to the end of apartheid. While the country has not fully recovered from the trauma that decades of the apartheid regime had left on its people, the end of the apartheid formal legal system has allowed the country to begin to heal and move towards a government that works for all people, one that has openly embraced international human rights law and principles in its constitutional and legislative framework.

This is what a human rights system can do. When state governments and legal orders fail to protect people within their control, the international system can challenge the national order and demand it uphold a basic standard of good governance. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the human rights system has grown, tackled new challenges, developed institutions for review and enforcement, and built a significant body of law. Numerous tools have been established to help states, groups, and individuals defend and protect human rights.

So why human rights? Because the human rights system has been a powerful force for good in this world, often the only recourse for marginalized and minority populations. We, as the global community, should work to identify shortcomings in the system, and work together to improve and fix them. We should not —  as the US has been doing under the current administration  — selectively withdraw, defund, and disparage one of the only tools available to the world’s most vulnerable peoples. The human rights system is an arena, a language, and a source of power to many around the world fighting for a worthwhile future built on our shared human values.

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Origins in ancient Greece and Rome

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human rights , rights that belong to an individual or group of individuals simply for being human, or as a consequence of inherent human vulnerability, or because they are requisite to the possibility of a just society. Whatever their theoretical justification, human rights refer to a wide continuum of values or capabilities thought to enhance human agency or protect human interests and declared to be universal in character, in some sense equally claimed for all human beings, present and future.

It is a common observation that human beings everywhere require the realization of diverse values or capabilities to ensure their individual and collective well-being. It also is a common observation that this requirement—whether conceived or expressed as a moral or a legal demand—is often painfully frustrated by social as well as natural forces, resulting in exploitation, oppression, persecution, and other forms of deprivation. Deeply rooted in these twin observations are the beginnings of what today are called “human rights” and the national and international legal processes associated with them.

Historical development

The expression human rights is relatively new, having come into everyday parlance only since World War II , the founding of the United Nations in 1945, and the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It replaced the phrase natural rights, which fell into disfavour in the 19th century in part because the concept of natural law (to which it was intimately linked) had become controversial with the rise of legal positivism . Legal positivism rejected the theory, long espoused by the Roman Catholic Church , that law must be moral to be law. The term human rights also replaced the later phrase the rights of Man, which was not universally understood to include the rights of women.

Most students of human rights trace the origins of the concept of human rights to ancient Greece and Rome , where it was closely tied to the doctrines of the Stoics , who held that human conduct should be judged according to, and brought into harmony with, the law of nature . A classic example of this view is given in Sophocles ’ play Antigone , in which the title character, upon being reproached by King Creon for defying his command not to bury her slain brother, asserted that she acted in accordance with the immutable laws of the gods.

In part because Stoicism played a key role in its formation and spread, Roman law similarly allowed for the existence of a natural law and with it—pursuant to the jus gentium (“law of nations”)—certain universal rights that extended beyond the rights of citizenship. According to the Roman jurist Ulpian , for example, natural law was that which nature, not the state, assures to all human beings, Roman citizens or not.

It was not until after the Middle Ages , however, that natural law became associated with natural rights. In Greco-Roman and medieval times, doctrines of natural law concerned mainly the duties, rather than the rights, of “Man.” Moreover, as evidenced in the writings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas , these doctrines recognized the legitimacy of slavery and serfdom and, in so doing, excluded perhaps the most important ideas of human rights as they are understood today—freedom (or liberty) and equality .

The conception of human rights as natural rights (as opposed to a classical natural order of obligation) was made possible by certain basic societal changes, which took place gradually beginning with the decline of European feudalism from about the 13th century and continuing through the Renaissance to the Peace of Westphalia (1648). During this period, resistance to religious intolerance and political and economic bondage; the evident failure of rulers to meet their obligations under natural law; and the unprecedented commitment to individual expression and worldly experience that was characteristic of the Renaissance all combined to shift the conception of natural law from duties to rights. The teachings of Aquinas and Hugo Grotius on the European continent, the Magna Carta (1215) and its companion Charter of the Forests (1217), the Petition of Right (1628), and the English Bill of Rights (1689) in England were signs of this change. Each testified to the increasingly popular view that human beings are endowed with certain eternal and inalienable rights that never were renounced when humankind “contracted” to enter the social order from the natural order and never were diminished by the claim of the “ divine right of kings .”

Human Rights Careers

What Are Human Rights Violations?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was established in response to the atrocities during WWII, including the Holocaust. The document outlines the human rights that all people are entitled to such as freedom from torture, freedom of expression, and the right to seek asylum. When those rights aren’t protected or blatantly disregarded, they are violated. What are the types of human rights violations? Who is responsible for preventing and addressing them?

Definition and types of human rights violations

A state commits human rights violations either directly or indirectly. Violations can either be intentionally performed by the state and or come as a result of the state failing to prevent the violation. When a state engages in human rights violations, various actors can be involved such as police, judges, prosecutors, government officials, and more. The violation can be physically violent in nature, such as police brutality, while rights such as the right to a fair trial can also be violated, where no physical violence is involved.

The second type of violation – failure by the state to protect – occurs when there’s a conflict between individuals or groups within a society. If the state does nothing to intervene and protect vulnerable people and groups, it’s participating in the violations. In the United States, the state failed to protect black Americans when lynchings frequently occurred around the country. Since many of those responsible for the lynchings were also state actors (like the police), this is an example of both types of violations occurring at the same time.

Examples of human rights violations

We’ve mentioned a few examples of human rights violations, but there are many more. Civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights can all be violated through various means. Though all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the legally binding International Covenants of Human Rights ( ICCPR , CESCR ) are considered essential, there are certain types of violations we tend to consider more serious. Civil rights, which include the right to life, safety, and equality before the law are considered by many to be “first-generation” rights. Political rights, which include the right to a fair trial and the right to vote, also fall under this category.

Civil and political rights

Civil and political rights are violated through genocide, torture, and arbitrary arrest. These violations often happen during times of war, and when a human rights violation intersects with the breaking of laws about armed conflict, it’s known as a war crime.

Conflict can also trigger violations of the right to freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly. States are usually responsible for the violations as they attempt to maintain control and push down rebellious societal forces. Suppressing political rights is a common tactic for many governments during times of civil unrest.

Violations of civil and political human rights aren’t always linked to specific conflicts and can occur at any given time. Human trafficking is currently one of the largest issues on a global scale as millions of men, women, and children are forced into labor and sexual exploitation. Religious discrimination is also very common in many places around the world. These violations often occur because the state is failing to protect vulnerable groups.

Economic, social, and cultural rights

As described in the UDHR, economic, social, and cultural rights include the right to work, the right to education, and the right to physical and mental health. As is the case with all human rights, economic, social, and cultural rights can be violated by states and other actors. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights gives a handful of examples of how these rights can be violated. They include:

  • Contaminating water, for example, with waste from State-owned facilities (the right to health)
  • Evicting people by force from their homes (the right to adequate housing)
  • Denying services and information about health (the right to health)
  • Discriminating at work based on traits like race, gender, and sexual orientation (The right to work)
  • Failing to provide maternity leave (protection of and assistance to the family)
  • Not paying a sufficient minimum wage (rights at work)
  • Segregating students based on disabilities (the right to education)
  • Forbidding the use of minority/indigenous languages (the right to participate in cultural life)

Who is ultimately responsible for ensuring human rights violations don’t happen?

In human rights treaties, states bear the primary burden of responsibility for protecting and encouraging human rights. When a government ratifies a treaty, they have a three-fold obligation. They must respect, protect, and fulfill human rights . When violations occur, it’s the government’s job to intervene and prosecute those responsible. The government must hold everyone (and itself) accountable.

This doesn’t mean that members of civil society don’t also have a responsibility to prevent human rights violations. Businesses and institutions must comply with discrimination laws and promote equality, while every individual should respect the rights of others. When governments are violating human rights either directly or indirectly, civil society should hold them accountable and speak out. The international community also has an obligation to monitor governments and their track records with human rights. Violations occur all the time, but they should always be called out.

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About the author, emmaline soken-huberty.

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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By Michelle Maiese

June 2004  

What are Human Rights?


The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights affirmed the crucial connection between international peace and security and the rule of law and human rights, placing them all within the larger context of democratization and development.

The United Nations is increasingly combining efforts to prevent or end conflicts with measures aimed at reducing human rights abuses in situations of internal violence. Special emphasis is placed on ensuring the protection of minorities, strengthening democratic institutions, realizing the right to development and securing universal respect for human rights. --

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are considered entitled: the right to life, liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equal treatment before the law, among others. These rights represent entitlements of the individual or groups vis-B-vis the government, as well as responsibilities of the individual and the government authorities.

Such rights are ascribed "naturally," which means that they are not earned and cannot be denied on the basis of race, creed, ethnicity or gender.[1] These rights are often advanced as legal rights and protected by the rule of law. However, they are distinct from and prior to law, and can be used as standards for formulating or criticizing both local and international law . It is typically thought that the conduct of governments and military forces must comply with these standards.

Various "basic" rights that cannot be violated under any circumstances are set forth in international human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights , and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights . The rights established by these documents include economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights.[2]

While human rights are not always interpreted similarly across societies, these norms nonetheless form a common human rights vocabulary in which the claims of various cultures can be articulated. The widespread ratification of international human rights agreements such as those listed above is taken as evidence that these are widely shared values.[3] Having human rights norms in place imposes certain requirements on governments and legitimizes the complaints of individuals in those cases where fundamental rights and freedoms are not respected.[4] Such norms constitute a standard for the conduct of government and the administration of force. They can be used as "universal, non-discriminatory standards" for formulating or criticizing law and act as guidelines for proper conduct.[5]

Many conflicts are sparked by a failure to protect human rights, and the trauma that results from severe human rights violations often leads to new human rights violations. As conflict intensifies, hatred accumulates and makes restoration of peace more difficult. In order to stop this cycle of violence, states must institute policies aimed at human rights protection. Many believe that the protection of human rights "is essential to the sustainable achievement of the three agreed global priorities of peace , development and democracy ."[6] Respect for human rights has therefore become an integral part of international law and foreign policy. The specific goal of expanding such rights is to "increase safeguards for the dignity of the person."[7]

Despite what resembles a widespread consensus on the importance of human rights and the expansion of international treaties on such matters, the protection of human rights still often leaves much to be desired. Although international organizations have been created or utilized to embody these values, there is little to enforce the commitments states have made to human rights. Military intervention is a rare occurrence. Sanctions have a spotty track record of effectiveness. Although not to be dismissed as insignificant, often the only consequence for failing to protect human rights is "naming and shaming."

Interventions to Protect Human Rights

"Numerous reports, compiled by the United Nations (UN) and various human rights organizations, have cited gross violations of human rights in Africa, especially within the context of internal armed conflicts. In light of this scenario, the question of whether or not a right to humanitarian intervention exists has become even more pertinent." - Kithure Kindiki, " "

To protect human rights is to ensure that people receive some degree of decent, humane treatment. Because political systems that protect human rights are thought to reduce the threat of world conflict, all nations have a stake in promoting worldwide respect for human rights.[8] International human rights law, humanitarian intervention law and refugee law all protect the right to life and physical integrity and attempt to limit the unrestrained power of the state. These laws aim to preserve humanity and protect against anything that challenges people's health, economic well-being, social stability and political peace. Underlying such laws is the principle of nondiscrimination, the notion that rights apply universally.[9]

Responsibility to protect human rights resides first and foremost with the states themselves. However, in many cases public authorities and government officials institute policies that violate basic human rights. Such abuses of power by political leaders and state authorities have devastating effects, including genocide , war crimes and crimes against humanity. What can be done to safeguard human rights when those in power are responsible for human rights violations ? Can outside forces intervene in order to protect human rights?

Humanitarian Intervention

In some cases, the perceived need to protect human rights and maintain peace has led to humanitarian intervention. There is evidence that internationally we are moving towards the notion that governments have not only a negative duty to respect human rights, but also a positive duty to safeguard these rights, preserve life and protect people from having their rights violated by others.[10] Many believe that states' duties to intervene should not be determined by proximity, but rather by the severity of the crisis.

There are two kinds of humanitarian intervention involving the military: unilateral interventions by a single state, and collective interventions by a group of states.[11] Because relatively few states have sufficient force and capacity to intervene on their own, most modern interventions are collective. Some also argue that there is a normative consensus that multilateral intervention is the only acceptable form at present.[12]

There is much disagreement about when and to what extent outside countries can engage in such interventions. More specifically, there is debate about the efficacy of using military force to protect the human rights of individuals in other nations. This sort of debate stems largely from a tension between state sovereignty and the rights of individuals.

Some defend the principles of state sovereignty and nonintervention, and argue that other states must be permitted to determine their own course. They point out that the principles of state sovereignty and the non-use of force are enshrined in the charter of the United Nations , which is regarded as an authoritative source on international legal order.[13]

This argument suggests that different states have different conceptions of justice, and international coexistence depends on a pluralist ethic whereby each state can uphold its own conception of the good.[14] Among this group, there is "a profound skepticism about the possibilities of realizing notions of universal justice."[15] States that presume to judge what counts as a violation of human rights in another nation interfere with that nation's right to self-determination. Suspicions are further raised by the inconsistent respect for sovereignty (or human rights for that matter); namely, the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council have tremendous say over application of international principles. In addition, requiring some country to respect human rights is liable to cause friction and can lead to far-reaching disagreements.[16] Thus, acts of intervention may disrupt interstate order and lead to further conflict.[17] Even greater human suffering might thereby result if states set aside the norm of nonintervention.

Others point out that humanitarian intervention does not, in principle, threaten the territorial integrity and political independence of states. Rather than aiming to destabilize a target state and meddle in its affairs, humanitarian intervention aims to restore rule of law and promote humane treatment of individuals.[18]

Furthermore, people who advocate this approach maintain that "only the vigilant eye of the international community can ensure the proper observance of international standards, in the interest not of one state or another but of the individuals themselves."[19] They maintain that massive violations of human rights, such as genocide and crimes against humanity, warrant intervention, even if it causes some tension or disagreement. Certain rights are inalienable and universal, and "taking basic rights seriously means taking responsibility for their protection everywhere."[20]

If, through its atrocious actions, a state destroys the lives and rights of its citizens, it temporarily forfeits its claims to legitimacy and sovereignty.[21] Outside governments then have a positive duty to take steps to protect human rights and preserve lives. In addition, it is thought that political systems that protect human rights reduce the threat of world conflict.[22] Thus, intervention might also be justified on the ground of preserving international security, promoting justice and maintaining international order.

Nevertheless, governments are often reluctant to commit military forces and resources to defend human rights in other states.[23] In addition, the use of violence to end human rights violations poses a moral dilemma insofar as such interventions may lead to further loss of innocent lives.[24] Therefore, it is imperative that the least amount of force necessary to achieve humanitarian objectives be used, and that intervention not do more harm than good. Lastly, there is a need to ensure that intervention is legitimate, and motivated by genuine humanitarian concerns. The purposes of intervention must be apolitical and disinterested. However, if risks and costs of intervention are high, it is unlikely that states will intervene unless their own interests are involved.[25] For this reason, some doubt whether interventions are ever driven by humanitarian concerns rather than self-interest.

Many note that in order to truly address human rights violations, we must strive to understand the underlying causes of these breaches. These causes have to do with underdevelopment, economic pressures, social problems and international conditions.[26] Indeed, the roots of repression, discrimination and other denials of human rights stem from deeper and more complex political, social and economic problems. It is only by understanding and ameliorating these root causes and strengthening both democracy and civil society that we can truly protect human rights.

Restoring Human Rights in the Peacebuilding Phase

In the aftermath of conflict, violence and suspicion often persist. Government institutions and the judiciary, which bear the main responsibility for the observation of human rights, are often severely weakened by the conflict or complicit in it. Yet, a general improvement in the human rights situation is essential for rehabilitation of war-torn societies. Many argue that healing the psychological scars caused by atrocities and reconciliation at the community level cannot take place if the truth about past crimes is not revealed and if human rights are not protected. To preserve political stability, human rights implementation must be managed effectively. Issues of mistrust and betrayal must be addressed, and the rule of law must be restored. In such an environment, the international community can often play an important supporting role in providing at least implicit guarantees that former opponents will not abandon the peace.[27] Because all international norms are subject to cultural interpretation, external agents that assist in the restoration of human rights in post-conflict societies must be careful to find local terms with which to express human rights norms. While human rights are in theory universal, ideas about which basic needs should be guaranteed vary according to cultural, political, economic and religious circumstances. Consequently, policies to promote and protect human rights must be culturally adapted to avoid distrust and perceptions of intrusion into internal affairs.

To promote human rights standards in post-conflict societies, many psychological issues must be addressed. Societies must either introduce new social norms or reestablish old moral standards. They must design programs that will both address past injustice and prevent future human rights violations . Human rights must not become just another compartmentalized aspect of recovery, but must be infused throughout all peacebuilding and reconstruction activities. Democratization implies the restoration of political and social rights. Government officials and members of security and police forces have to be trained to observe basic rights in the execution of their duties. Finally, being able to forgive past violations is central to society's reconciliation .

Rights Protection Methods

Various methods to advance and protect human rights are available:

  • During violent conflict, safe havens to protect refugees and war victims from any surrounding violence in their communities can sometimes help to safeguard human lives.
  • As violent conflict begins to subside, peacekeeping strategies to physically separate disputants and prevent further violence are crucial. These measures, together with violence prevention mechanisms, can help to safeguard human lives. Limiting the use of violence is crucial to ensuring groups' survival and creating the necessary conditions for a return to peace.
  • Education about human rights must become part of general public education. Technical and financial assistance should be provided to increase knowledge about human rights. Members of the police and security forces have to be trained to ensure the observation of human rights standards for law enforcement. Research institutes and universities should be strengthened to train lawyers and judges. To uphold human rights standards in the long-term, their values must permeate all levels of society.
  • Dialogue groups that assemble people from various ethnicities should be organized to overcome mistrust, fear and grief in society. Getting to know the feelings of ordinary people of each side might help to change the demonic image of the enemy group. Dialogue also helps parties at the grassroots level to discover the truth about what has happened, and may provide opportunities for apology and forgiveness.
  • External specialists can offer legislative assistance and provide guidance in drafting press freedom laws, minority legislation and laws securing gender equality. They can also assist in drafting a constitution, which guarantees fundamental political and economic rights.
  • Those who perpetrate human rights violations find it much easier to do so in cases where their activities can remain secret. International witnesses , observers and reporters can exert modest pressure to bring violations of human rights to public notice and discourage further violence. Monitors should not only expose violations, but also make the public aware of any progress made in the realization of human rights. In order to ensure that proper action is taken after the results of investigations have been made public, effective mechanisms to address injustice must be in place.
  • Truth commissions are sometimes established after a political transition. To distinguish them from other institutions established to deal with a legacy of human rights abuses, truth commissions can be understood as "bodies set up to investigate a past history of violations of human rights in a particular country -- which can include violations by the military or other government forces or armed opposition forces."[28] They are officially sanctioned temporary bodies that investigate a pattern of abuse in the past. Their goal is to uncover details of past abuses as a symbol of acknowledgment of past wrongs. They typically do not have the powers of courts, nor should they, since they do not have the same standards of evidence and protections for defendants. As such, they usually do not "name names" of those responsible for human rights abuses, but rather point to institutional failings that facilitated the crimes. Finally, they conclude with a report that contains recommendations to prevent a recurrence of the crimes and to provide reparations to victims.
  • International war crimes tribunals are established to hold individuals criminally responsible for violations of international human rights law in special courts. The international community rarely has the will to create them. As the experiences with the war tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia indicate, even where they are created, they are imperfect. They cannot hold all perpetrators accountable and typically aim for the top leadership. However, it remains difficult to sentence the top-level decision-makers, who bear the ultimate responsibility for atrocities. They often enjoy political immunity as members of the post-conflict government. Incriminating a popular leader might lead to violent protests and sometimes even to relapse into conflict. Leaders may be necessary to negotiate and implement a peace agreement.
  • Various democratization measures can help to restore political and social rights. For sustainability and long-term viability of human rights standards, strong local enforcement mechanisms have to be established. An independent judiciary that provides impartial means and protects individuals against politically influenced persecution must be restored. Election monitors who help to guarantee fair voting procedures can help to ensure stable and peaceful elections. And various social structural changes , including reallocations of resources, increased political participation , and the strengthening of civil society can help to ensure that people's basic needs are met.
  • Humanitarian aid and development assistance seeks to ease the impact that violent conflict has on civilians. During conflict, the primary aim is to prevent human casualties and ensure access to basic survival needs. These basics include water, sanitation, food, shelter and health care. Aid can also assist those who have been displaced and support rehabilitation work. Once conflict has ended, development assistance helps to advance reconstruction programs that rebuild infrastructure, institutions and the economy. This assistance helps countries to undergo peaceful development rather than sliding back into conflict.

The expansion of international human rights law has often not been matched by practice. Yet, there is growing consensus that the protection of human rights is important for the resolution of conflict and to the rebuilding process afterward. To achieve these goals, the international community has identified a number of mechanisms both to bring an end to human rights abuses and to establish an environment in which they will be respected in the future. They are not alternatives, but each provides important benefits in dealing with the past and envisioning a brighter future.

[1] Little, David. "Universality of Human Rights," [available at: http://www.usip.org/research/rehr/universality.html ] (no longer available as of March 5th 2013)

[2] endnote goes here**

[3] At the same time, some would argue that the hegemonic power of the West, whether through normative pressure or economic, is responsible for widespread ratification.

[4] Antonio Cassese, Human Rights in a Changing World . (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 2.

[5] Little, "The Nature and Basis of Human Rights," United States Institute of Peace.

[available at: http://www.usip.org/research/rehr/natbasis.html ] (no longer available as of March 5th 2013)

[6] "Human Rights Today: A United Nations Priority," The United Nations, 2000. [available at: http://www.un.org/rights/HRToday/ ]

[7] Cassese, 3.

[8] Cassese, 58.

[9] Don Hubert and Thomas G. Weiss et al. The Responsibility to Protect: Supplementary Volume to the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. (Canada: International Development Research Centre, 2001), 144.

[10] Hubert and Weiss, et al., 147.

[11] Kithure Kindiki, "Gross Violations of Human Rights in Internal Armed Conflicts in Africa: Is There a Right of Humanitarian Intervention?" in Conflict Trends , no. 3, 2001. ACCORD.

[12] Martha Finnemore, The purpose of intervention: changing beliefs about the use of force . (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2003), chapter 3.

[13] Kithure Kindiki, "Gross Violations of Human Rights"

[14] Hubert and Weiss, et al., 132.

[15] Hubert and Weiss, et al., 133.

[16] Cassese, 58.

z[17] Hubert and Weiss, et al., 133.

[18] Kithure Kindiki, "Gross Violations of Human Rights"

[19] Cassese, 55-6.

[20] Hubert and Weiss, et al., 135.

[21] Hubert and Weiss, et al., 136.

[22] Cassese, 58.

[23] Hubert and Weiss, et al., 136.

[24] Hubert and Weiss, et al., 137.

[25] Hubert and Weiss, et al., 141.

[26] Cassese, 59.

[27] See for example, Barbara F. Walter, Committing to peace: the successful settlement of civil wars . (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press: 2002).

[28] Priscilla B. Hayner, (1994). "Fifteen Truth Commissions - 1974 to 1994: A Comparative Study." Human Rights Quarterly. 16(4): 604.

Use the following to cite this article: Maiese, Michelle. "Human Rights Protection." Beyond Intractability . Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2004 < http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/human-rights-protect >.

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Essays on Human Rights

While Western societies have come a long way in their quest for equality and fairness, there are still problems that wait to be addressed. A human rights essay is a good opportunity to focus on such problems and to bring them to public awareness with the ultimate goal of finding solutions and eliminating them.

For human rights to be respected, a few prerequisites are required, such as respect for and acceptance of those who are different from you, tolerance, modesty, awareness of existing injustice and suffering, and readiness to actively oppose any form of abuse. Review our essays on human rights – note the diversity of topics, the way these essays are structured, the content flow, the language used.

Pro Death Penalty: a Rational Examination

The death penalty, or capital punishment, has long been a topic of debate and controversy. While many argue against it, this essay seeks to provide a balanced examination of the arguments in favor of the death penalty. Proponents of capital punishment assert that it serves...

How Freedom of Speech Affects Other Individual Rights

Freedom of speech, often considered the cornerstone of democratic societies, has been a subject of enduring debate and discussion. This essay delves into the multifaceted realm of freedom of speech, offering an argumentative perspective on its intricate interplay with other individual rights. In a world...

Social Worker: Qualities, Opportunities, and Challenges

Social workers play a vital role in society by assisting individuals and communities in need, advocating for social justice, and promoting well-being. Their work encompasses a wide range of fields, from child welfare to mental health to substance abuse. In this essay, we will explore...

The Impact of Social Issues on Social Work

Social work is a profession deeply intertwined with addressing and mitigating the impact of social issues on individuals, families, and communities. This essay explores the intricate relationship between social issues and the practice of social work, examining how these challenges influence the role of social...

Social Work: a Compassionate Profession with a Vital Purpose

Social work is a noble and multifaceted profession dedicated to enhancing the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Rooted in principles of compassion, social justice, and advocacy, it plays a crucial role in addressing some of society's most pressing challenges. In this essay, we will...

What is Freedom in Different Cultures and Societies

Freedom, a fundamental human aspiration, is a concept that takes on diverse meanings across various cultures and societies. It is a multifaceted concept that reflects the values, history, and social structures of a given community. In this essay, we will explore the notion of freedom...

Promoting Gender Equality in Sports: Challenges and Progress

The pursuit of gender equality in sports reflects broader societal aspirations for fairness and inclusivity. This essay explores the multifaceted issue of gender equality in sports, examining the challenges that persist and the significant progress that has been made. Historically, sports have been largely dominated...

Exploring the Adage "The Pen is Mightier than the Sword"

The age-old adage "The pen is mightier than the sword" encapsulates the idea that words and communication have the potential to wield greater influence and bring about more lasting change than physical force. In this essay, we delve into the profound meaning behind this saying,...

Freedom of the Press in China

The concept of freedom of the press takes on a unique and complex dimension in the context of China. This essay delves into the challenges surrounding freedom of the press in China, its impact on society, and the global implications of this intricate issue. The...

Freedom of the Press: Upholding Democracy and the Power of Information

Freedom of the press is a fundamental pillar of democratic societies, serving as a cornerstone of transparency, accountability, and the dissemination of vital information. This essay delves into the multifaceted significance of freedom of the press, exploring its role in safeguarding democracy, promoting informed citizenry,...

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