Who is responsible for upholding human rights standards? One major policy question in the area of human rights centers on accountability. Which actors, and what kind of actors, are bound by international human rights laws and normative standards? As political philosophers commonly observe, the notion that some actors hold rights implies that others have duties. Within a universal and global human rights framework, individual human beings are the assumed rights holders. Who are the duty bearers?
In the immediate post-WWII years of human rights standard-setting, human rights norms and treaties were presumed to apply only to nation states. As the dominant actors in global politics, states were the presumed duty bearers, with primary responsibility for protecting and fulfilling international human rights norms. The term “human rights violation,” likewise, was reserved to describe abuses committed by states.
Over time, human rights practitioners began to question the exclusive focus on government agents and actions directly attributed to them. While governments incontestably bear responsibility for their own violations of human rights, how are we to think about other kinds of actors who from positions of state-like authority commit the same or similar abuse? By the 1970s, human rights practitioners commonly observed that states were not the only actors who dirtied their hands in torture, disappearance, assassination, and enslavement. Where did paramilitary groups, rebel forces, terrorist groups, and multinational corporations fit into the human rights paradigm and how should they be held accountable? In short, to what extent are non-state actors accountable for upholding international human rights standards?
On a somewhat separate track, questions arose about the responsibility of governments to ensure protection from abuse by private citizens and other agents under their jurisdiction. When an individual acting in his or her private capacity commits a human rights abuse, what responsibility does the state bear to prosecute and punish the wrongdoing?
This section of our website explores these questions and recounts the debates about accountability as they developed and evolved within the human rights movement. The webpages linked below develop the arguments that, over time, have contributed to a broader understanding of the responsibility of both states and non-state actors to uphold international human rights standards.