Traditional international law did not confer rights on individuals. People did not have international legal rights as such; they were objects rather than subjects of international law and could not generally claim to be the direct beneficiaries of rights, nor take legal action to enforce such claims. Some exceptions to this rule were found in ‘early human rights treaties’ regarding, inter alia, religious rights, minority rights, the prohibition of slavery and the protection of property rights, but the domain of international law was, to a large extent, that of states. After the Second World War, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights began a different era, where rights and duties under international law were gradually conferred upon the individual.
Today it is established that individuals have legal rights and are subject to international law. In 1950, the European Convention introduced, for the first time, the possibility for an individual to bring complaints of violations to an international body and gradually the role of individuals and NGOs increased. States are no longer the sole actors in the human rights field. The sessions of the Human Rights Council, for instance, demonstrate the multiplicity of relevant actors. The Council members, often more than 100 non-member states, the ICRC and hundreds of NGOs, experts and human rights defenders take part in the human rights debate.
Non-state actors also violate human rights. It remains the responsibility of the state to address such violations, but it is at the same time important to analyse and address these violations in international fora. In the following chapters the focus will be on the protection and promotion of human rights, although abuse of power leading to violations of human rights will also be touched upon.
The first chapter examines the role of states as protectors and enforcers of human rights. States have an obligation to promote respect for human rights; this section will examine the various ways in which states can act internationally to this end.
The second chapter analyses the work of the European Union and its member states as an example of how states can act jointly to protect and promote human rights.
The third chapter analyses the role of non-state actors. First, NGOs are discussed; in recent years, they have contributed significantly to the strengthening of the protection of human rights under the existing supervisory mechanisms. NGOs can play and have played an active role in increasing the efficacy of international human rights standards and have been imperative in pressing for enhanced human rights protection worldwide. Secondly, the role of individual human rights defenders is examined. Together with the NGOs, human rights defenders contribute to the promotion and protection of rights despite the adverse circumstances in which they operate. Finally, the role of transnational corporations is examined.