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International Human Rights Law as a Global Standard

Shin Hae Bong,
10th President of the International Human Rights Law Association

Shin Hae Bong, President of IHRLA

International human rights law, which aims to guarantee human rights by providing for their protection at the global level, has its origins in the United Nations’ founding Charter, which refers to respect for human rights “for all” without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

While protection of human rights was prescribed in the modern constitutions that developed from the 18th century onwards, international law, which regulates relations between states, essentially treated human rights as a domestic issue up until the 20th century. However, human rights protections under domestic law are vulnerable to the whims of government, as was shown by the Nazis, who suspended constitutionally protected human rights one after the other and even dominated the judiciary, trampling on human rights under the guise of a national crisis. The internationalization of the protection of human rights is the result of the lessons humanity has learned from such painful experiences. The rejection of racial and any other forms of discrimination, which has been one of the main principles of international human rights law from its inception, also has its roots in this historical period. If we do not stay alert, this same pattern of events could be repeated in other parts of the world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted in 1948, proclaimed a common standard for all peoples and nations to achieve, and is a fundamental international human rights standard that today is also being utilized in the field of business and human rights. In the years following the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the number of UN member states increased greatly as a result of decolonization and other factors. This expanded international community once again affirmed the universality of human rights in the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, adopted in 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights.

A number of core human rights treaties have been adopted at the United Nations, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Most of these treaties have been ratified by Japan. These core human rights treaties all incorporate a groundbreaking monitoring system, in which the monitoring bodies (committees) established under each treaty and located in Geneva, the European base of the UN, examine the human rights situation of state parties on the basis of the periodic reports each state party submits. In addition to the core human rights treaties, there are also other treaties that have a strong connection with human rights, such as the Refugee Convention, and these have also had a great impact on Japanese domestic law. Further, at the regional level, there are human rights treaties that establish human rights courts, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights, and the jurisprudence of these courts has transcended its regional origins to influence the decisions of other human rights treaty bodies. In addition to the monitoring systems established by human rights treaties, there are also other monitoring activities carried out by the United Nations. These center around the Human Rights Council, which deliberates on various human rights issues and also carries out the Universal Periodic Review, a system of reporting and monitoring in which the human rights record of all UN member states is scrutinized on a rotating basis.

International human rights law thus monitors the protection of human rights under domestic law from the point of view of an international standard, and encourages states to make improvements in problem areas. As in the case of discrimination against children born out of wedlock and discrimination against foreigners in Japan, victims of human rights violations may be in a minority domestically or not be able to vote domestically, so their voices are frequently not properly reflected in domestic political and legal processes. In such cases in particular, international human rights law functions as an important norm that demonstrates the standard for human rights protection that states should achieve. In today’s international community, we can say that international human rights law enjoys a status as a legal norm embodying universal values.

While international human rights law has developed into a rich system of rules and mechanisms for implementation of these rules, many issues remain with regard to the protection of human rights, and in recent years some of these problems have become increasingly serious. The erosion of individuals’ privacy and freedom of religion under the discourse of the “war on terror” is one such problem. Bombing carried out to destroy terrorists carries with it the risk of depriving innocent people of their lives. If countries take a militaristic stance in their anti-terrorism policies, far less money and resources will be available for children’s education and for healthcare. This trend toward militarization is one of the main problems currently faced by international human rights protection, and it can also be observed in Japan, where the government is pursuing a policy of continuing to expand military cooperation with the United States while ignoring the human rights of victims of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. We must think calmly and clearly about what the ultimate result of this trend toward militarization will be (recalling that the factors that originally prompted the rise of extremist groups which resort to terrorism include the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain, which was fully supported by Japan, and the disorder and destabilization of the entire Middle East that followed this invasion). It also goes without saying that the path of militarization undermines the protection of human rights under national constitutions themselves. In this sense, we must always think about human rights problems today from both a domestic and an international perspective.

The International Human Rights Law Association is an international academic organization for researchers from all fields of law, such as constitutional law, criminal law, administrative law, gender and law, civil law, and international relations, who also have an interest in international human rights law. The Association's members also include many practitioners, particularly lawyers standing side-by-side with victims of human rights violations and striving to utilize international human rights law in their day-to-day work, and people active in human rights NGOs. Our annual conference in November is always an intellectually stimulating experience, with people involved in human rights issues from various standpoints taking an active part in presentations and exchange of different points of view (sometimes in the form of a symposium). The Association’s journal, “Human Rights International,” includes articles based on such conference presentations as well as research on cases related to international human rights law, book reviews, and peer-reviewed articles.

Going forward, the International Human Rights Law Association intends to demonstrate even more clearly its raison d’etre as a central academic forum for research and practice related to international human rights law. We aim to further develop our activities by organizing study groups between researchers and practitioners and holding side events with invited guests, in conjunction with or in addition to our annual conference, and we also aim to actively pursue exchanges with researchers and associations abroad. We encourage those of you who are already members of the Association to give us your frank opinions about its activities. We also invite those of you who are not yet members, but who are engaged in research into human rights in various disciplines or in activities to promote human rights, and who are also interested in international human rights law, to attend our annual conference as guests, with the hope that you will one day take part in our network as members.

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