Individual Rights and the Changing Charter of International Law

By Kathy Ramboni

According to John Humphrey, the traditional states system relies on nation-states as the principle actors in both the domestic and international spheres. Sovereign states possess a “monopoly over coercive power” under International Law because of their right to self-determination. However, since the end of the Second World War, the emergence of individual civil and political rights has challenged the authority of the nation-states. So too has the creation of the International Court of Justice by multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. The creation of such a court means that sovereign states have to recognize that individuals, and not just governments, have legal responsibilities under international law. For instance, they cannot commit crimes against humanity.

Nonetheless, if individuals have legal duties to fulfill under International Law, then they must also have rights. For this reason, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was created in 1966 to promote and to ensure the protection of those individual rights. In my paper, I will advance Humphrey’s initial point, to rename International Law as World Law, through excerpts from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. My point is to show the importance of civil and political rights in shaping our world so that nation-states agree to include individuals in the renaming of International Law as World Law.

Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under which “all persons shall be equal before courts and tribunals” is a good example of an individual civil right.[2] Article 14 grants the right to anyone who has been charged with a criminal offence to a “fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law”.[3] The right to an impartial tribunal follows the principle of equality before the law where anyone charged with a criminal offence “shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law”.[4] The implications of the principle of equality before the law include the need to recognize that individuals are subject to the same laws, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, social class, and religious affiliation. Sovereign states also need to acknowledge individual agency, recognizing that individuals are capable elf thinking critically and making their own choices. For instance, a person who donates food to charity can be rewarded for her efforts. Conversely, a person who kills an innocent person must be punished for her crime. However, the treatment of the individual, depending on the nature of his action, does not depend on society as a whole but only on the court’s verdict. The final decision on the person’s sentence is to be given only by a fair tribunal; until the end of the hearing, he will be presumed innocent by law. Consequently, the principle of equality under the law provides anyone who charged with a criminal offence with the chance to defend their innocence. Additionally, Article 14 protects individuals from being arbitrarily detained or arrested by the authorities without any proof of criminal offence on their part.

Article 25 states every citizen shall have the “right to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections.” It is another equally impressive political right. The right to vote and to be elected during fair elections follow the principle of universal suffrage within a democratic regime. The implications of such a policy are, once more, framed in egalitarian terms where anyone who is a citizen of a democracy “has a right to express his will” through a secret ballot, and also to “take part in public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives”. The logic behind having the right to vote as a citizen is the recognition of an individual’s capacity to make decisions and subsequently to shape the conditions of the country they  live in through political participation.

In conclusion, individuals have two essential features that clearly prove that they deserved the implementation of civil and political rights through an International Covenant under International Law. The capacity to think critically enables individuals to make informed decisions about the actions they want to pursue within society while the ability to make decisions entails that individuals have responsibilities to fulfill under the law. The examples of Article 14 and 25 illustrate my point by showing how citizens are all subject to the same laws for they are each accountable for their actions. Tthey can also actively shape the conditions of their home country through political participation. As a result, given the importance of the agency and the involvement of individuals in developing their communities, the renaming of International Law into World Law proposed by Humphrey would accurately reflect this point.


[2] United Nations General Assembly. International Law: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, 1966), 176

[3] Ibid, 176

[4] Ibid, 176

[5] United Nations General Assembly. International Law: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 179

[6] Ibid, 179

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