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Do International Human Rights Treaties Matter? | Part 1

A Background to Human Rights treaties

This mini-series is going to answer the question if Human rights treaties really matter, whether it is successful in improving the human rights records of countries,  by giving the background of human rights treaties, analysing how they are enforced and how countries are assisted in achieving the goals of these treaties in order to come to a judgement on whether they really matter.

Over the last century, there has been an explosive growth in international co-operation, signified by multilateral treaties and enforced by international organisations such as the EU and the UN. This rise began in the early 19th century, with the 1815 Navigation of the Rhine Treaty, the 1865 International Telecommunications Treaty and the 1919 League of Nations formed after the horrors of WW1.

However, this took off after the formation of the United Nations in 1945, following the signing of the UN Charter in the San Francisco conference. The UN also encompasses many other international organisations such as the world Trade Organisation and the World Health Organisation. Every treaty signed between members of the UN are registered with the UN secretariat, in order for the terms to be ratified and enforced by an impartial organisations

This includes treaties regarding Human rights. The idea of Human rights can be traced back to the French Revolution of 1789, under the ideas of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, that people should be equal; there should be free speech and suffrage, the right to vote. This continued in the early 1900s, with international labour organisations demanding basic rights and conditions for workers. However, this broke down after WW1, as governments used the excuse of sovereignty in the time of crisis to do what they wanted to their citizens, without interference.

However over the 20th Century, governments of the world signed up to various international organisations. This meant that they somewhat lost the autonomy that they had regarding the way they treated their citizens, as the affairs of their countries, especially those regarding human rights, were much more closely monitored.

How do Human Rights Treaties fit into society?

This is epitomized by the UN, who oversaw the signing of 8 key human rights treaties, most importantly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was not specifically a treaty, just a declaration or statement on human rights made by the UN, and therefore it is not legally binding upon member states of the UN and could not be used to rule upon human rights issues. Despite this, it is regarded as convention and custom by international lawyers that these rules set out by the declaration are followed by member states. However, some aspects of the UDHR are vague and aspirational, such as the right to holidays with pay, as this obviously is not financially viable to happen in some countries, especially those that are less economically developed

There are also various regional or continentally bases Human rights treaties, such as the African Charter on Human and People’s rights, the American convention on Human Rights, the European Convention on Human rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights. This adds extra solidarity upon the more global Human rights treaties that organisations such as the UN oversee.

As you can see, the rich history of Human rights treaties is evident, a concept that will be eternally modern and applicable to society. However what I will be answering in this mini-series is whether human rights treaties are good at their job or if they are entirely superficial, by looking at their enforcement  and the assistance given by other countries to reach the goals of these treaties to come to an overall judgement on whether they really matter in helping human rights.