Human Rights: Past, Present, and Future


About the Author

Ryan Dunk: Political scientist, humanist, and dog lover. Master’s Candidate studying International Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Where Did We Come From and Where are We Going?

Almost every nation on Earth has a codified list of rights that their citizens are entitled to and the largest international organization on earth has published an extensive list of similar rights that it asserts belongs to every living person. In theory, these rights are legal and social entitlements that every human being is born with. They cannot be revoked and they should never be violated. These rights include positive rights, for example, the rights to life, liberty, security, free speech, education, etc., as well as negative rights, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, exile, persecution, and so on (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 3-9). Unfortunately, while enumerating these rights has proven relatively simple, enforcing them domestically and internationally has been much more problematic. While the international community overwhelmingly agrees that violating human rights is a severe offense, consensus as to how to enforce this agreement has proven difficult. Often times, the strongest proponents of human rights are helpless to stop egregious abuses, while other times, they themselves are the perpetrators of the crimes. As things stand, substantial strides have been made regarding the formation, enumeration, and recognition of human rights, but there are myriad obstacles inhibiting the international community from protecting these rights.

Defining Human Rights

The definition of individual human rights has been in flux for hundreds of years. Discrepancies over what rights are, where they come from, who is entitled to them, and when they can be violated, have only exacerbated the sluggish process of settling on a universal definition. Different historical developments, most involving the ill-treatment of a group of people, have slowly pushed the issue of universal human rights into the spotlight. Christian persecution by the Ottoman Empire; the genocide committed by the Nazi Party of Germany between the years of 1935-1945 in which over 6 million innocent people were killed; disappearances in Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain of the USSR; as well as South Africa’s oppressive Apartheid policy that encouraged the segregation and mistreatment of millions of Africans are all responsible for raising the question: does a sovereign nation have the legal or moral right to treat its citizens with such hostility (Karns and Mingst, 450)?

The use of child soldiers is banned by the UN via it's Declaration of the Rights of the Child. But that hasn't stopped many countries and military groups.

The use of child soldiers is banned by the UN via it’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child. But that hasn’t stopped many countries and military groups.

Political theorists and philosophers have also contributed a significant amount of ideas and literature on the subjects of equality, justice, and rights. Men and women such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, John Rawls, Eleanor Roosevelt and Karl Marx, as well as groups of people such as the founding fathers and authors of the Declaration of Independence in the United States in 1776 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France in 1793 stated that all human beings are born with inalienable rights and that this was a fact that could be naturally observed (Karns and Mingst, 452).

Today, there are two types of rights that are widely accepted by almost all nation-states; namely, first and second generation rights. First generation rights, or civil-political rights, are protections and freedoms pertaining to the state, for example, protection from torture or the freedom of speech. Second generation, or socio-economic rights, deal with social welfare as well as protection of people’s rights to education and livable wages. These rights are codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1948 by a unanimous vote, and in countless other constitutions in every region on Earth.


At present, there are three distinct parties that influence human rights policy; namely, nongovernmental organizations, states, and inter-government organizations. Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are heavily involved in the human rights movement, often focusing in on one particular aspect of human rights, such as human trafficking or unlawful arrest. Some of the largest NGOs currently in operation are Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam.

NGOs benefit from their ability to operate within the borders of violating states. They are able to gather information on abuses and publish them quickly without having to wade through bureaucratic red tape. Conversely, their small size often hinders their ability to directly affect unwanted conditions. They cannot form policy; they are unable to utilize any hard power; and they run the risk of being persecuted by state authorities (Karns and Mingst, 474).

States are the most influential of the three parties and are responsible for the vast majority of enforcement regarding human rights violations. Through state power, laws and sentences can be handed down; treaties can be ratified; and norms can be enforced. However, it is often the case that states are the primary offenders in human rights cases. In short, state participation is essential if full recognition of universal human rights is to become a reality.

Secretary-General Ban ki-moon ( at the podium )speaks during the 21th session of the Human Rights Council. 10 September 2012. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré

Secretary-General Ban ki-moon ( at the podium )speaks during the 21th session of the Human Rights Council. 10 September 2012. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré

Lastly, inter-governmental organizations, or IGOs, are responsible for the bulk of norm creation, treaty writing, and collective action regarding human rights cases, as well as a number of other important responsibilities such as trade and peacekeeping. The United Nations is the most prominent IGO, encompassing over 190 nations as of 2008 (Karns and Mingst, 108). The United Nations and other IGOs have the ability to form militias, establish court systems, and impose sanctions, in response to any actions that it agrees violates international law. However, as discussed, the UN is heavily inhibited by conflicting state interests among its members, as well as sluggish response times due to its bureaucratic nature.


Enforcement is by far the largest obstacle facing human rights activists worldwide. Domestically, rules and regulations are imposed often by a police force, and any violation is met with swift sanctions. However, while international actors have the ability to draft treaty upon treaty regarding equality, genocide, wars of aggression and so on, actually imposing these rules and invoking punishment is much more problematic.

There are many factors that contribute to this dilemma; the first being state sovereignty. To elaborate, the United Nations recognizes the sovereignty of each nation, as stated in Chapter 1 Article 2 of its charter. This means that the UN acknowledges each nation’s right to govern itself, implement its own policies, and manage its own internal affairs, without fear of outside intervention. And while this is one of the UN’s most important policies, it is also undeniably problematic for human rights activists. There is an inherent contradiction between the UN’s duty to respect state sovereignty and its responsibility to respond to human rights violations.

There are also a number of states and regions in which human rights violations occur that are not bound by international treaties or agreements. Two nations that fit this example are the United States of America and the Democratic Republic of North Korea. North Korea has not signed many treaties that forbid torture, forced labor, and forced disappearances, while the United States has refused to ratify treaties banning torture and securing children’s rights. Every state has the option to sign and ratify each new treaty proposed by the United Nations. Often times, they decline to sign – sometimes because they disagree with the sentiment put forth by the treaty, and other times because they are actively avoiding sanctions. Additionally, there are regions without a recognizable state in which human rights abuses occur. Somalia is the prime example of such an area.

UN soldiers in the DRC.

UN soldiers in the DRC.

The second major test for human rights activists and their allies lies in international bureaucracy and rational state interest. In 2005, the United Nations adopted a resolution meant to deal with genocide, popularly known as the “responsibility to protect.” Unfortunately this resolution has done little to stop the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the Darfur region of Sudan. Critics of the United Nations point to the ease in which Sudan erected bureaucratic roadblocks, effectively stunting any significant action by the UN (Hoge, 1).  In short, even after virtually every nation has ratified an agreement regarding human rights, the road to enforcement is still long and winding.

As Warren Hoge points out in his article Intervention, Hailed as a Concept, Is Shunned in Practice, the 2008 war in Darfur offered the United Nations its first true test since the ratification of the “responsibility to protect” resolution passed three years prior, and the United Nations failed this test. According to Hoge, key decision makers and powerful member states have refused to take part in an intervention, while the Sudanese government has done all it can to object to UN intervention as modern day colonialism (Hoge, 2).

Unfortunately, the conflict in Sudan was not the first time that the international community failed to act in the face of grave human rights abuses. In the small African nation of Rwanda from early April to late July 1994, approximately 800,000 innocent people were slaughtered by government led forces. These crimes were carried out by the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority, while powerful states did nothing. The issues of sovereignty, bureaucracy, and state interest kept virtually every power capable of a successful interdiction from acting (Power, 9-25).

Current Policy

Today, NGOs, IGOs, and states are faced with a number of policy issues, the most serious of which are discussed above. These three groups deal with these policy roadblocks in their own unique ways, by monitoring, promoting, and enforcing human rights norms.

NGOs, being the least powerful of the group, must resort to soft power tactics, including peer pressure as well as naming and shaming – the process by which NGOs release information about a violator, whether a state or individual, and call for international condemnation and arrest of the actor. Nongovernmental organizations are responsible for monitoring situations in volatile states, as well as grassroots campaigns, often aimed at a very specific goal, such as freeing political prisoners, the abolition of an unjust law, or the promotion of new or better human rights norms

One way that NGOs like Amnesty International contribute to the human rights movement is through awareness campaigns such as this one.

One way that NGOs like Amnesty International contribute to the human rights movement is through awareness campaigns such as this one.

States and IGOs are much more powerful, and therefore have a large arsenal of weapons, literally and figuratively, that they can use against aggressors and violators. And while states and inter-governmental organizations are also responsible for monitoring and promoting, they are primarily concerned with enforcement. They do this through a number of ways. In the past, ad-hoc courts have been set up in areas of conflict, armed forces have been deployed into volatile regions, air strikes have been used against key targets, and economic sanctions have been implemented on states believed to be in violation of international law (Karns, Mingst 480).

Recently, the United Nations, in conjunction with over 120 states, established the International Criminal Court, or ICC. The purpose of the court is to serve as a permanent tribunal for the prosecution of human rights violations (war crimes, crimes against humanity, or crimes of aggression). The court, founded in July of 2002 as an alternative to the inefficient and ineffective ad-hoc system, hears progressively more cases each year, primarily from Africa. The court can hold trials of criminals even if the men and women are not present at its headquarters at The Hague in the Netherlands. However, the ICC suffers from the same problems as its IGO counterparts. Many claim that its authority is an infringement on state sovereignty, while other point out that without state cooperation, the court is effectively toothless (Karns and Mingst, 479).

Moving Forward

While there has been significant progress on the human rights front since the creation of the United Nations following World War II, there remains a great amount of work to be done. Great strides have been made in regards to the codification of universal human rights, the monitoring and acknowledgement of offenses, as well as enforcement mechanisms used against abusing parties. The number of NGOs is growing at a rapid rate and states are becoming more interconnected each day. Keeping this in mind, scholars and activists are calling for even tighter regulations on offenders as well as more serious commitment and cooperation by powerful actors such as the United States and Europe.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, does well to point out that for the first time in history, all of the pieces needed to make real the vision of universal recognition of human rights are available, all it takes is the proper coordination and cooperation (Sen, 4-5). This will require world leaders to make serious commitments to human rights initiatives. Moving forward, rulers must not only sign and ratify treaties, but learn to abide by them, and enforce them when needed. By doing these things, scholars argue that there will be less incentive for deviance and increased incentive to comply.

There are still many issues plaguing the human rights movement: enforcement remains problematic, incentives to cooperate are lacking, and bureaucracy hinders the entire process, but serious progress in the past six decades offers a real glimpse at a world of true universal equality and fair treatment. The monitoring tools are in place, human rights campaigners and lobbyists are becoming increasingly powerful, and the necessary infrastructure exists to ensure that violators of international agreements are caught, prosecuted, and punished. The pieces are there, they must simply be arranged correctly.


Hoge, Warren. “Intervention, Hailed as a Concept, Is Shunned in Practice.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., 20 Jan. 2008. Web. 15 Oct. 2013. <;.

Karns, Margaret P., and Karen A. Mingst. International Organizations: the Politics and Processes of Global Governance. 2 ed. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010. Print.

Power, Samantha. “Bystanders to Genocide.” The Atlantic — News and analysis on politics, business, culture, technology, national,  international, and life – N.p., 9 July 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2013. <;.

Sen, Amartya. “The Power of a Declaration – The New Republic.” The New Republic. N.p., 4 Feb. 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2013. <;.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Welcome to the United Nations: It’s Your World. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2013. <;.


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