International Law

Published: 
1 Jan 2011

International human rights law developed primarily following the atrocities of World War II. Since then, the need to protect human rights and incorporate them in a universal framework has steadily grown and has not been limited to domestic legislation enacted by individual states.

Human rights are those rights granted to all persons without which they would not be able to live as human beings. They are based on the requirement that the dignity and worth of every person be respected and protected. Since states have most of the power to impair or deny these rights, and since states hold the means and mechanisms of enforcement such as the police, army, courts, and prisons, the demand to respect human rights is principally directed at states. Therefore, when human rights violations are mentioned, the reference is generally to violations by the governing authorities rather than by one individual against another.

In 1948, following World War II, representatives of UN member states formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which delineates the rights of every individual that states must respect. This declaration does not comprise the moral or legal source of the rights mentioned. It is, however, the document that is most widely recognized regarding the rights that are considered vital to life in a just society. Following the Declaration, the UN and other international organizations formulated several conventions and documents that delineate various rights.

In addition to these conventions, rules were established to deal with human rights in time of war. These rules, which set the red lines that the combatant parties may not breach during the conflict, comprise international humanitarian law.

International law distinguishes between customary and treaty-based law. Customary law includes all the principles of conduct that states are obligated to take, even where the state is not party to a convention dealing with the relevant matter. This broad application results because the principles reflect a consistent legal policy maintained by most states as to what is allowed and forbidden, and, in the case of humanitarian law, what is allowed and forbidden during wartime. Treaty-based law, on the other hand, only obligates the states that signed the particular convention.

Under Israeli law, an international treaty is not, as a rule, part of domestic law until the Knesset enacts legislation incorporating the provisions of the treaty into Israeli law. This rule does not apply to agreements that are part of international customary law, which automatically become part of domestic law.