Eleni Christou, '19, on How the Dismantling of Apartheid Exemplifies How the Human Rights System Works

Why Human Rights?

When the term “human rights” is used, it conjures up, for some, powerful images of the righteous fight for the inalienable rights that people have just by virtue of being human. It is Martin Luther King Jr. before the Washington monument as hundreds of thousands gather and look on; it is Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom; or a 16-year-old Malala telling her story, so others like her may be heard. But what is beyond these archetypes? Does the system work? Can we make it work better? Is it even the right system for our times? In other words, why human rights?

Human rights are rights that every person has from the moment they are born to the moment they die. They are things that everyone is entitled to, such as life, liberty, freedom of expression, and the right to education, just by virtue of being human. People can never lose these rights on the basis of age, sex, nationality, race, or disability. Human rights offer us a principled framework, rooted in normative values meant for all nations and legal orders. In a world order in which states/governments set the rules, the human rights regime is the counterweight, one concerned with and focused on the individual. In other words, we need human rights because it provides us a way of evaluating and challenging national laws and practices as to the treatment of individuals.

The foundational human right text for our modern-day system is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December, 1948, this document lays out 30 articles which define the rights each human is entitled to. These rights are designed to protect core human values and prohibit institutions and practices that are contrary to the enjoyment of the rights. Rights often complement each other, and at times, can be combined to form new rights. For example, humans have a right to liberty, and also a right to be free from slavery, two rights which complement and reinforce each other. Other times, rights can be in tension, like when a person’s right to freedom of expression infringes upon another’s right to freedom from discrimination.

In this post, I’ll provide an example of how the human rights system has been used to do important work. The international communities’ work to develop the law and organize around human rights principles to challenge and sanction the apartheid regime in South Africa provides a valuable illustration of how the human rights system can be used successfully to alleviate state human rights violations that previously would have been written off as a domestic matter.

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International human rights