In the legal sense, having human rights means that a state has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the rights in question. A state is not only obligated to not violate human rights (respect) but must also ensure that no-one suffers from rights violations (protect) as well as take positive action to ensure that the rights can be enjoyed by all (fulfil).
When a state violates its human rights obligations, victims can seek justice by turning to national, regional or international actors and mechanisms.
While it is up to the states themselves to decide which international and regional human rights instruments, they will ratify and be bind to, the system of international law also consists of international customary law and general principles of law, which bind all states equally. For instance, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see more below) – one of the founding documents of international human rights law – is often considered to be binding on all states.
International Human Rights Law
At the international level, there are various binding human rights instruments, which impose obligations on states. Some of the most important binding international instruments include the United Nations (UN) core human rights treaties (and their protocols) such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Social Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
There are also several treaties dealing with more specific issues; either protecting specific groups of rights bearers, whose rights have traditionally been poorly protected, such as women, children and persons with disabilities, or dealing with particularly serious human rights violations, for example: genocide, racial discrimination and torture. There are also binding instruments by other international actors such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Bank, which address human rights issues specific to their organisations.
States’ compliance with the core UN human rights conventions is monitored by the respective Committees (treaty bodies). Individuals who claim that their human rights have been violated can appeal to the corresponding Committee to have their allegations examined. The Committees consist of individual human rights experts, who provide guidance on the interpretation and implementation of their respective focus treaties, monitor state actions and may decide on individual cases of alleged human rights violations.
Regional Human Rights Law
At the regional level, there are a number of human rights instruments which only apply in specific geographical areas – such as the the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and the American Declarationon the Rights and Duties of Man, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.
The regional instruments are monitored by Courts and Commissions, which can be highly influential in relation to the development and protection of human rights in their respective regions and the creation of global norms.
National human rights law
On a state level, human rights are generally enshrined in constitutions alongside national laws. Once bound by human rights obligations, a state is bound to act in accordance with its obligations in all its actions. The state is therefore both the duty-bearer and primary guardian of human rights for everyone within its power.
Local and sub-national level authorities are also of great importance in ensuring the fulfilment of human rights in practice, due to their closeness to people and situations.
Since human rights are ensured and dealt with at the state level in most cases, national courts are the first line of defence for human rights. This means that individuals must first exhaust all domestic remedies – that is, use all available national justice mechanisms to have an alleged human rights violation tried – before being able to turn to regional or international mechanisms, which act as an international safety net.
Although the fulfilment of human rights is the legal responsibility of the state, many other actors, at local, national, regional and international levels, play an important role in ensuring human rights fulfilment. Key non-state actors include for instance civil society organisations, academia, grass roots movements, individuals, international organisations, private companies and various other networks and organisations.