Research Article: International Law, Human Rights Issues, and What It All Means

International conflict is seen daily on the news, and it can be quite overwhelming to navigate what is actually happening. There are always political, economic, and social agendas, and in between falls human rights issues. Cases such as Syria, Somalia, Bosnia, Venezuela, Yemen and countless others highlight crucial issues when it comes to states and their people. Do states have a right to abuse their people without intervention or accountability? According to the “traditional” international law viewpoint – yes. Before the second World War, “as long as a government did not interfere with the rights of neighboring countries (or of foreign nationals living within its territory), it could abuse its own citizens in any way it wanted without running afoul of international law strictures. Individuals were regarded as ‘mere’ objects of international legal rules, the playthings of sovereign neglect (or worse)” (Bederman & Keitner, 144).

It wasn’t until almost the middle of the 20th century that the international community established humanitarian law. The Charter of the U.N. was signed in 1945, which Article 55 states, “universal respect for, and observation of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” (Bederman & Keitner, 145). The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights shortly followed, and was drafted by a panel lead by Eleanor Roosevelt. “Article 1 proclaims: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ Article 3 says simply and unqualifiedly: ‘Everyone has a right to life, liberty and security of person’” (Bederman & Keitner, 145).

With human rights laws being observed and upheld more and more by states and outside actors, it seems to challenge “traditional” international law. These tensions can drive states to break, and redefine, international law in modern times.

The U.S. intervention in Syria serves as an example that circumstances are not so clear cut. “Two basic legal principles animate our current international system: states are sovereign, and they shall not, generally speaking, attack each other. The United Nations charter reflects these two principles, and recognizes just two exceptions in its text: action taken pursuant to a UN Security Council resolution, and individual or collective self-defense. As the U.S. weighs action against the brutal Syrian regime, it must decide whether to abide by these laws, or abandon them in pursuit of some greater good to be gained through an arguably unlawful intervention in Syria” (Carter, 2020).

Along with other cases, the United States has been criticized for Syrian intervention and questioned on a legal basis. “Syria remains a sovereign state, which maintains relative control over its borders, economy, and population.  As a matter of international law, the conflict within Syria is also an internal conflict.  Despite its obvious horrors, the Syrian Civil War itself does not justify armed attack by outside states, anymore than the U.S. Civil War justified direct intervention by the British” (Carter, 2020). Center for Constitutional Rights president emeritus, Michael Ratner, criticized Obama saying the intervention was “an illegal use of force…a crime of aggression…It’s a war crime. It’s the kind of crime that the Germans were tried for at Nuremberg” (Patterson, 2016).

Is the U.S. warranted in humanitarian intervention despite international law standards? Human rights is undoubtedly a major issue on many levels. The international community has learned that when states commit crimes against their people--it affects the international community economically, socially, and politically. With globalization, we've come to understand that no state truly operates autonomously. Sovereignty is extremely important, but to what extreme can states commit horrendous abuses and lack accountability?

These questions can hopefully be addressed through “soft law,” which is “an important means of lawmaking in international environmental law and human rights…a positive response to scientific discoveries and imperatives, one which recognizes political and policy considerations and respects state sovereignty while providing necessary steps to resolve global problems” (Tinker 2015: 1,10). In terms of International Law, “soft laws” are preliminary workings and developments prior to (potentially) turning into general principles, customary laws, or treaties. “’Soft law’ has the potential—and even a tendency—to ‘harden’ over time into binding international legal obligation. Over sixty years later, virtually all of the provisions of the Universal Declaration concerning civil and political rights have come to be recognized as binding human rights norms under customary international law or other multilateral instruments” (Bederman & Keitner, 146).

A current “soft law” example are the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the General Assembly in 2014. These 17 goals are meant to achieve higher global success and quality in areas such as food, health, education, human equality, sanitation, water, general sustainability, sanitation, climate change, etc. The goals are not legally binding but could eventually evolve into more recognized and formalized versions of International Law. “Open to debate is whether the principle of sustainable development may already be seen as a general principle of international law, customary international law (with both evidence of state practice and of opinio juris), or potentially an erga omnes obligation to halt environmental destruction and degradation of natural resources before ‘planetary boundaries’ are reached or exceeded” (Tinker 2015: 10). “Soft law” can be quite successful in launching legal, cohesive international goals. It seems to be the “vision” needed to move forward in solidifying these agreements and forming concrete laws.

What does this mean for our own communities? Just like states, our businesses, organizations and teams also are not autonomous from others. Economically, socially, and even politically, establishments work together within towns and cities. Although companies are able to operate with freedom and sovereignty, larger systems are in place to observe fair treatment and equality for their workforce. Under the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, equality concepts are outlined and have launched corresponding state laws. Putting this international law into practice, however, can be more challenging when it comes to every day equality, equity, inclusivity, etc. Is it in a company’s interest to observe macro human rights laws within their microcosm? Yes. Companies are at risk for internal conflict, high turnover rates, and low productivity when they don’t create a supportive environment for their workers. In extreme cases, employee lawsuits can be tolling financially and on a company’s reputation. Just as the United Nations adopted provisions and measures to help address these major issues, companies and teams should do the same to help create a more harmonious and prosperous work place.


Bederman, David J., and Chimène I. Keitner. International Law Frameworks. St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press, 2016.

Carter, Phillip. “INTERNATIONAL LAW CONSTRAINS U.S. ACTION IN SYRIA.” International Law Constrains U.S. Action in Syria. Accessed February 11, 2020.

Corn, Geoffrey S., and Rachel VanLandingham, Lt Col, USAF (Ret.). “Lawful Self-Defense vs. Revenge Strikes: Scrutinizing Iran and U.S. Uses of Force under International Law.” Just Security, January 9, 2020.

Patterson, Margot. “How the U.S. Violates International Law in Plain Sight.” America Magazine, January 22, 2017.

Tinker, Dr. Catherine. "Creation of International 'Soft Law' Formation and Effect of the 'Sustainable Development Goals' in the post-2015 Development Agenda at the United Nations, in Globalização e as Novas Perspectivas no Direito Ambiental Econômico, Cristiane Derani and Mariana Caroline Stolz, org., Curitiba, Brazil, Multideia Ed., 2015, pp. 81-93

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