Basic Definitions

We have listed a few key defintions for understanding the current mainstream human rights framework. Amnesty International has a great beginners guide to human rights jargon. As for a more complete list, we suggest American University’s glossary of human rights terms.

International Humanitarian Law is basically the laws and rules of war, and regulates conflict and action from state to state. It regulates how belligerents (those actively involved in conflict) treat each other and how this may affect non-combatants. It applies only in armed conflicts, both domestic and international. Under IHL, there are few important treaties:

  • The Geneva Conventions (protect medical personnel, wounded/captured military personnel, civilians)
  • The Hague Conventions (define the laws of war, defines war crimes)

Both Hague Law and Geneva Law identify several of the violations of their norms, though not all, as war crimes.

International Human Rights Law has to do with the regulation of conflict and action between states and individuals. It’s mainly how states treat civilian citizens and civilian non-citizens in their territory.

International Criminal Law is a body of law that includes treaties and other international documents. It focuses on individual liability and defines and prescribes punishment for crimes that may have violated parts of international humanitarian law or other treaties/statutes passed. It also includes the three big crimes: genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanities. An attempt of one of these crimes is enough to be tried. Inciting someone else to do it is enough too.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights limits the power of sovereign powers. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, individuals get rights and states get obligations. It was adopted as a part of the UN’s international bill of rights.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a source of negative rights because it ensures that governments abstain from interfering with your actions on a civil and political sense. The U.S. is a signatory on this. 

International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is a source of positive rights because it forces/requires governments to provide economic, social, and cultural rights. This is a little more of an ask for governments. The U.S. is not a signatory on this.