Human Rights Enforcement in the 21st Century


The international human rights system’s approach to enforcement and implementation of human rights has proven unrealistic in a world characterized by oppression, poverty and armed conflict. In this essay, I suggest that traditional approaches to enforcement, while serving some important functions, are inadequate to meet the challenge of effectively realizing human rights in the 21st Century. These inadequacies include a variety of institutional, conceptual and jurisprudential weaknesses, including: (1) failure to develop a coherent overall structure with institutions whose attributes are likely to promote the legitimacy of international decision-making and encourage state respect; (2) refusal to make important distinctions among rights with regard to enforcement methods; (3) failure to adequately pursue individual versus governmental accountability for violations; and (4) inability to develop adequate economic, political, and social incentives that might render voluntary state compliance a more realistic possibility.

Some important lessons for reform can be drawn from alternative approaches to human rights enforcement and from the circumstances of the European Court of Human Rights. Alternatives approaches, such as Filartiga and Pinochet style litigation, are important by virtue of their shared emphasis on individual accountability for a fairly narrow range of egregious, universally understood human rights violations. Other important lessons may be drawn from the ECHR’s development of effective institutional characteristics, a carefully crafted jurisprudence defining its role vis-à-vis democratic member states, and reliance on independently created economic, political and cultural incentives to induce state compliance.


Human Rights Law | International Law

Date of this Version

April 2006