Horizontal Human Rights Law

American Journal of International Law, Forthcoming

Wake Forest Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 1014381

75 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2007

See all articles by John H. Knox

John H. Knox

Wake Forest University - School of Law


Is international human rights law vertical, running solely between individuals and states? Or should it be horizontal as well, placing duties on private actors? In recent years, the United Nations has considered, and some governments and academics have supported, proposals to revise human rights law to impose duties directly on individuals and corporations. These proposals misunderstand how human rights law already addresses private duties, and if adopted they would do more harm than good.

Human rights law tacitly distinguishes two types of private duties: duties owed by the individual to his or her state that run conversely to the duties of the state to promote and protect the individual's human rights; and duties on the part of individuals that correlate to the human rights of others. Because governments may rely on converse duties to limit human rights, human rights law generally refuses to list converse duties and restricts the authority of governments to use such duties to limit human rights. Correlative duties can further human rights, but human rights law imposes only a few correlative duties directly on private actors. Instead, it requires governments to impose such duties in the course of complying with their own obligations under human rights law.

The article argues that this approach makes sense for political and practical reasons. It suggests that proposals for private duties should meet a two-part test: they should not open the door to converse duties, and they should build on, rather than undermine, the existing system of correlative duties. The article examines two proposals recently presented to the UN Human Rights Commission -- a draft declaration of human social responsibilities and draft norms setting out corporate obligations under human rights law -- and concludes that neither meets these requirements.

Keywords: International law, human rights law

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Knox, John H., Horizontal Human Rights Law. American Journal of International Law, Forthcoming, Wake Forest Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 1014381, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1014381

John H. Knox (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States

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