October 4, 2022

Lion with Roar and No Bite- The Irony of International Human Rights Law

This article is written by siddharth Arora, a final year student of B.A-LL.B(Hons.) at UILS Panjab University Chandigarh.

I have often heard my Professor in law school, a barrister in court, a diplomat in press conferences and several leaders at the United Nations saying, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the magna carta of all jurisprudence. Without UDHR, ICCPR (including its two optional protocols) and ICESR, the world would have been nihilistic, characterized by anarchy.” But the harsh truth is that the shield of “International Human Rights Law” which we consider to be the bedrock of our society and always clinging on to us, is no longer effective. While this problem is known to scholars before also, today’s time characterized by increasing armed conflicts; regional tensions; military expansionist programs; displacement of people; food-water shortage and climate crisis, have made the lack of enforcement vide diplomatic channels and effective recourse in case of human rights violations, the most pressing concern in IHRL.

While we may be hopeful of emerging from the pandemic, anarchy is something which will soon bite us unless and until, the issue of lack of effective implementation through political will and consensus, along with the lack of effective remedy is seriously addressed and rectified.

The birth of IHRL, significantly occurred Post WW-II, where the victors of the war, under the UN system sought to introduce a post world order underpinned on a robust human rights framework. While, the UN website refers to the UDHR as a “milestone document” in the history of human rights[1], the fact that’s it is a declaration, makes it non-binding under international law. The ICCPR and ICESR though considered as the torch bearers of basic rights, their violations are ignored and countered by offenders claiming state sovereignty and non-interference, two principles which are enshrined in the UN Charter. Coupled with this is the express language used in the treaties, which provides states with the option to sign, ratify or accede to the same.[2] This along with the provision for derogation, makes matter more worrisome. Also, is the “Optional” nature of the two protocols accompanying the ICCPR, which make them not compulsory, left at the state’s discretion.

Much at debate is the reform, which is required at the UNSC, concerning the veto power of the P-5 states. Whether it is Russia and China shielding the Syrian war crimes committed by Bashar-al-Assad[3] or the US protecting Saudi Arabia, the lack of dedicated political will and consensus to act against the violator, for mere bilateral diplomacy gains and quid pro quo renders the human rights framework into a vegetative state. This lack of political will is lacking within the domestic channels of the states also. Currently, there are no uniform-international mechanisms to enforce IHRL, the transnational-legal process, devoid of teeth, as discussed only exists. The 47 member Human Rights

Council, successor to the much criticised Human Rights Commission also doesn’t hold any binding force. Also, with the election of Pakistan, China and other nations with a horrific background of human rights violations, much needs to be deliberated on the double standards and ethos of the council.

With enforcement comes the effort to spread public awareness about rights, which too is lacking. Speaking about awareness, Eleanor Roosevelt remarked[4], “Human Rights begin in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” This means even have an important role to play, we also like the state should not abdicate from our fundamental duty in promoting and protecting human rights.

On the issue of redressal, as is with other international law treaties, IHRL provides for national adjudication as the first step for claiming recourse. Currently, there is no International Court of Human Rights. Also, we are not alien to the fact that domestic courts can often be biased, corrupt and inclined towards the violator, which can be the state. Even when it comes international tribunals and courts, they seldom lack the power from taking up cases where the victim is a private party and often are set up by the victors/violators themselves. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East is a good example from history, this results in “Victor’s Justice.”

Moreover, often these courts lack the power to enforce their rulings without national or multi-national cooperation. This again renders justice as being ineffective.

At this stage, I am reminded of a story I heard from my grandfather in my childhood. The story is about a lion, who ruled over the jungle and used to enforce order with his loud roar, often shouting directions from his seat. However, when other inmates of the jungle came to know about the king having no teeth, order was dispensed away with, the king over-thrown and anarchy descended. This is exactly, the current state of international human rights law. To avoid the bite of anarchy and that it doesn’t strike us, world leaders and citizens need to act and act in tandem. Political will to obey and enforce law, strong mechanisms and grass root public awareness are the need of the hour.  The shield needs to be used, not just clinging on to us, it is then only we can hope to make the world as Micheal Jackson said, “ A better place to live for you, for me and the entire human race…..”


[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, available at- http://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights/, (last visited on 22/6/2021 at 9:55 PM IST).

[2] Article 48 of the International Convention of Civil & Political Rights and Article 26 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

[3]Michelle Nichols, Russia blocks UNSC Condemnation of Syria attack, available at- https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-un-vote/, (last visited on 22/6/2021 at 10:00pm).

[4] Eleanor Roosevelt, “Where Do Human Rights Begin?,” in Courage in a Dangerous World: The Political Writings of Eleanor Roosevelt, ed. Allida M. Black (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 190.