Since 1945, international law has undergone significant development, becoming more diverse and complex. Its aim is no longer solely to oversee coexistence between sovereign states (in terms of peace, security, and cooperation); it now intervenes within states to ensure the wellbeing of individuals and peoples (“liberal welfare” state regimes). Protection of human rights has also been strengthened by the expansion of international humanitarian law, international penal justice mechanisms, and traditional justice, as well as by the extension of covered spheres (security, trade, work, health, environment, and so on).

From its beginnings international law has been an instrument of international politics, reflecting the power relationships, ideals and interests of each era, as well as a precarious, vital instrument of peacemaking. Constructed in the 18th century by European and North American states that were undergoing legal and political consolidation, classical international law is founded on a platform of the fundamental rights and duties of sovereign states and subjects of international law, on recognizing the recourse to force by individual states as a means to resolve differences and on justifying the colonization of the rest of the world by European states that saw themselves as civilized.

Serving in turn as a weapon for the powerful and a shield for the weak, international law has developed significantly since 1945, becoming more diverse and more complex: the process has involved a relativization of the foundations of state sovereignty, a proliferation and diversification of sources and actors (private, transnational, multilateral, individual, etc.), geopolitical upheaval connected with the former communist regimes, decolonization, the Cold War (and its consequences) and globalization, and an expansion in the law’s spheres of coverage (security, trade, labor, healthcare, environment, etc.).

Regulation – and intervention

Contemporary international law changed first in prohibiting the use of force (Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, UN Charter in 1945) and instituting mechanisms for collective security and peaceful dispute settlement (negotiation, mediation, conciliation, good offices, arbitration, international courts, etc.). Above all, it no longer seeks merely to manage the coexistence of sovereign states (peace, security, cooperation) but also intervenes within states to ensure the well-being of individuals and peoples. This expansion of the law’s purposes resulted in the emergence of “liberal welfare” law, creating tensions between the liberal respect for freedoms and sovereignty and welfare-motivated interventions in society.

While decolonization reaffirmed the principles of sovereign equality between states and non- interference, it also affirmed nations’ right to self-determination. During the 1960s, advocates of the right to development and the new international economic order (NIEO) worked toward the goal of true international justice and not just on paper. The process by which so-called underdeveloped countries would catch up with developed countries was to be founded on principles of freedom of choice of economic system, permanent sovereignty over natural resources, fairness, and common but differentiated responsibilities. Following the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, the right to sustainable development sought to reconcile economic factors (stimulating growth), social factors (fighting inequality) and ecological factors (preserving the environment), while incorporating an intergenerational dimension (action on behalf of future generations). The ending of the Cold War simultaneously encouraged consideration of human rights, criteria for good governance, the rule of law and democracy, giving rise to so-called humanitarian interventions in some armed conflicts and to conditionality in the provision of development aid.

Expansion of human rights

Human rights protection has expanded with the development of international humanitarian law : protecting victims of armed conflict (Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1949), regulating the choice and use of weapons (Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907), requiring human rights observance during hostilities, and criminalizing typically international practices such as slavery and trafficking in women and children. After the Second World War, military tribunals were set up to prosecute the defeated parties, and the concepts of war crime, crime against humanity and genocide were defined. Respect for human rights is among the fundamental goals of the UN and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Ratifications of eight human rights agreements, 1966-2017

Source: United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights,

Comment: These graphs show the historical sequence of ratification relating to eight international conventions on human rights. With the exception of conventions relating to children’s rights and the rights of disabled persons, both of them massively and swiftly ratified, the six other treaties were ratified only very gradually. Even so, these conventions were fairly widely ratified, by an average of over eight states out of ten, except for the convention on the protection of migrant workers’ rights, which was ratified by only a quarter of states.

However, plans to create an international criminal court lost momentum during the Cold War, while international covenants on civil and political rights, and on economic, social and cultural rights were not adopted until 1966.

Nonetheless, legal human rights protection developed at the regional level – European Court of Human Rights (1959), Inter-American Court of Human Rights (1979), African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1998) – and progress was made toward abolishing the death penalty internationally.

Death Penalty and Executions, 2017

Sources: Amnesty International, Death Penalty and Executions 2017,;; Dui Hua Foundation,

Comment: NGOs are the only bodies to publish information about the death penalty (status and executions). In 2017, the death penalty was still legal in many Middle Eastern, Asian, and African countries, as well as in some states of the US. China is thought to hold the greatest number of executions by far, with 2,000 per year. The situations are also critical in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan. The scale of executions in North Korea and Vietnam is unknown.

The creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998 and the adoption by some states of universal jurisdiction (or extraterritorial jurisdiction) arrangements allowing them to judge serious crimes committed abroad or to extradite their perpetrators represented key new advances – though these were challenged by some states.

Today, the drive to extend human rights protections faces the challenge of ubiquitous security-led responses to global or transnational threats (terrorism, criminality, pandemics, environmental risks, economic and financial crises). It also faces demands for the recognition of diverse cultural expressions and identities, hitherto given little consideration in the individualist discourse – claiming universal validity – underpinning the concept of human rights.


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" International law " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:


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