Human rights live at home: A primer on remedies

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

As a participant in the Future of Human Rights conference, held at NYU Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice in November 2023, I was pleasantly surprised to hear about many local solutions to human rights issues. While my prior understanding of human rights classified it as mainly international, I then realized that more focus is needed on curating domestic solutions to address human rights violations and uphold human dignity.

With the wars in Gaza, Ukraine, and elsewhere around the world, it’s easy to forget that most human rights violations occur domestically. But to effectively fight for justice, equality, and equity, we—as academics, practitioners, and advocates—need to clarify what we are fighting for and how we can fight for it. Ultimately, we must distinguish between human rights law that lives domestically (within a country’s borders), international humanitarian law (which governs lawful action on the battlefield), and international human rights law (which governs lawful action in non-combat situations). 


International law, then and now

It is generally understood that there’s a difference between domestic human rights violations and human rights violations that take place in the international realm, but less is known about why the two are symbolically adjoined. Despite agreement that human rights evolved in various domestic contexts, the English Magna Carta (1215) and Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the US Constitution (1789) and Bill of Rights (1791) are all commonly recognized as precursors of what is properly known as international human rights law. 

Importantly, domestic laws protecting individual rights such as the above, along with the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) and Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), have informed and are informed by international human rights law, but they remain conceptually and legally distinct. To understand which remedies to rights violations are available in any given case, one must first understand some basic tenets of international law, more precisely known as public international law.

International law is defined as the “legal responsibility of States in their conduct with each other, and their treatment of individuals within State boundaries.” The primary actor in international law is states (nations or countries), and their actions are constrained legally by the rights and obligations they willingly undertake. This feature is important for two reasons. Firstly, it means that states are legally liable only to other states for breaches of international law, not to individuals. Consequently, remedies and reparations requests must come from another state; but, despite popular belief, there is no centralized authority that enforces international law. 

As such, the majority of obligations that restrict the actions of states derive from international treaties, which are the bilateral and multilateral contracts states willingly make amongst themselves regarding specific rights and jurisdictions. It’s true that customary international law also generates rights and obligations, but consent and remedies are harder to establish. Thus, most mechanisms to remedy breaches of international law live within specific frameworks laid out by negotiated contracts, including international human rights law.

While international human rights law is most closely linked to and associated with the Geneva and Hague Conventions in the minds of the general public, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1976) is the main legal text that obliges governments to ensure individual rights. In addition to listing what rights are protected, Article 2 specifically requires signatories to pass domestic laws mirroring those in the ICCPR; this obligation creates pathways to human rights remedies within borders. Further, states that are bound to the ICCPR are required to provide effective remedies to human rights violations domestically through the “legal system of the state” and to ensure judicial, administrative, or legislative authorities that are competent enough to enforce such remedies if granted. 

In addition, states can seek remedies from other states they deem to be violating the terms of the ICCPR by referring the matter to the Human Rights Committee (HRC), an adjudicative body that oversees and mediates breaches of the treaty. According to Article 41 of the ICCPR, a concerned state may refer the matter to the committee only after all reasonable domestic remedies have been exhausted. If the matter is left unresolved, the HRC appoints a conciliation committee to hear and resolve the matter—but only if both states parties agree! 

Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find a case between states, as most cases submitted to the HRC are between a state and an individual or group of individuals. Somewhere along the line, individuals have gained access to the HRC, and states, for some reason, are consenting for the matters to be heard.


Focusing on human rights at home

Today, the bulk of fighting on human rights frontiers continues to take place within countries rather than between them. In a bold move to combat systemic racism in the public and private employment sectors, the Black Class Action Secretariat led a human rights complaint against the Canadian Human Rights Commission earlier this year on the grounds of discrimination and a failure to promote and protect human rights. And in a strange but unsurprising case, residents of Salt Lake City, Utah, are fighting against the city and a band of community organizations to potentially violate the human rights of those living on the street to abate “any and all nuisances caused by the unhoused.” 

Nevertheless, human rights are not only about fighting legal battles in court. Advocates, academics, and practitioners of human rights all play a role in pushing the conversation forward. 

After convening the Future of Human Rights Governance (FORGE) conference at the NYU School of Law, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice invested in Experiments for Change, including a project focused on developing human rights–based workplace training in Lebanon. Another experiment will host dialogue and knowledge-sharing sessions to ensure Jamaica’s national digital ID system rollout is inclusive and rights-respecting. Two other experiments focus on storytelling to address ecological justice and emergencies in the African and North American regions. These projects are but a few examples of domestic pathways to upholding human rights and human dignity.

Both human rights violations and accompanying remedies start and live at home. This is a call to human rights practitioners, academics, and advocates: before teleporting to the international realm, first look locally at nearby people, communities, organizations, governments, and bodies of law to seek inspiration and curate solutions to human rights abuses. This is where your impact is greatest and where people need you the most!