Story: International law

Page 4. International law on human rights and conflict

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A large body of international law has been created through the many treaties between nations and a range of international institutions. However, despite the existence of the law on paper, in the 21st century the international community still faces many challenges in establishing compliance in practice. The difficulties involved can be seen in attempts to protect human rights both in times of peace and during armed conflict.

Cluster munitions and disability rights

In 2009 New Zealand enacted the United Nations Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which bans the use of cluster munitions – weapons that release large numbers of smaller explosives, and which pose a particular threat to civilians. The CCM bans the use of cluster munitions in warfare and also seeks to assist the victims of these weapons, recognising states’ obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. New Zealand enacted the disability convention in 2008, guaranteeing the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people with disabilities.

Geneva Conventions and armed conflict

The Geneva Conventions of 1864 (updated in 1906, 1929 and 1949) are rules that apply in times of armed conflict to protect those who are not taking part in hostilities. As well as civilians, this includes combatants who, due to sickness or wounds, are no longer able to fight. New Zealand is a party to the Geneva Conventions, which aim to balance the principle of protection against the military necessities of war. Over recent decades the international community has placed major emphasis on the better implementation of the conventions, but with limited and uneven success.

Among the measures intended to be implemented by the Geneva Conventions are:

  • the training of military, and other personnel involved in war, in the day-to-day application of the conventions and rules
  • the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross
  • national disciplinary action and criminal prosecution over war crimes
  • international criminal proceedings over war crimes, as occurred in Nuremberg and Tokyo after the Second World War, for former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sierra Leone in the later 20th century, and the proceedings at the International Criminal Court
  • various forms of international inquiry.

Interstate claims arising from the wars in former Yugoslavia, central Africa, and Ethiopia and Eritrea have also been decided by the International Court of Justice and a bilateral claims commission.

Human rights in peacetime

In many parts of the world, the means for the application and enforcement of international human rights law in times of peace are much better established than those for times of war. Domestic laws on human rights, as applied day-to-day by police, courts and other authorities, often have their origins in international law. The international sources can include law contained in major human rights treaties and labour conventions. Over the years international mechanisms have been set up in an attempt to apply the human rights law from such treaties and conventions to cross-border interactions.

International courts

A number of international courts deal with international disputes, including issues of armed conflict:

  • The International Court of Justice (ICJ), set up in 1946, is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN). It is a world court responsible for settling legal disputes submitted to it by states. New Zealand has made a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the ICJ as compulsory. New Zealander Kenneth Keith was elected by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council to serve as a judge of the ICJ from 2006 to 2015.
  • The International Criminal Court (ICC) was set up in 2002 as a permanent court. It was created to try individuals accused of serious crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in cases where states are unable or unwilling to do so. New Zealand was involved in the negotiations to set up the ICC and has continued to support it.
  • A number of international criminal tribunals have been set up to deal with specific acts of genocide or crimes against humanity, including tribunals or special courts for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Lebanon, Cambodia and Sierra Leone. New Zealander Silvia Cartwright served as a judge on the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (from 2006), while David Baragwanath served as a judge on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (from 2010, president 2011–15).
How to cite this page:

K. J. Keith, 'International law - International law on human rights and conflict', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 January 2022)

Story by K. J. Keith, published 20 Jun 2012