Rethinking International Human Rights: What Have We Learned, Where are We Going?

23 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2006

See all articles by Richard Bilder

Richard Bilder

University of Wisconsin Law School

Date Written: Summer 1999


This paper reviews and discusses the recent history of international human rights efforts, noting both its successes and failures; suggests some lessons that might be drawn from this experience, and proposes a number of steps we might take to promote wider respect for human rights.

In particular, the paper suggests an informal list of lessons which might be drawn from our international human rights experience thus far. These lessons include: (1) governments do count in making human rights effective; (2) governments do care about their human rights reputation; (3) government can be honestly inconsistent or ambivalent (4) we should do what we can even if it is only partially effective; (5) we should not get discouraged by the difficulty of achieving greater human rights observance; (6) money talks; (7) institutions and precedents tend to grow; (8) even the best motivated policies may have unintended consequences; (9)we should watch out for human rights "hijackers"; and (10) patience is a virtue. The paper discusses the challenges that remain and concludes with a "To Do" list of twenty proposals for action.

The paper is a shortened version of several of five lectures delivered as a course on "Rethinking International Humans Rights: What Have We Learned, Where Are We Going?", presented at the Tenth Anniversary Session on Human Rights of the Academy of European Law, held at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, summer 1999. The lectures have been submitted for publication in the Oxford University Press Series of Collected Courses of the Academy of European Law.

A shortened version of another portion of the lectures dealing with the implications of the Kosovo intervention for the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, the laws of war, international criminal law, the role of the media and NGOs in humanitarian situations, and sovereignty and ethnic conflict has appeared in Richard B. Bilder, "Kosovo and the New Interventionism: Promise or Peril", Journal of Transnational Law & Policy, Vol. 9, No.1.

Keywords: International Law, International Human Rights, Humanitarian Intervention, International Relations

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Bilder, Richard, Rethinking International Human Rights: What Have We Learned, Where are We Going? (Summer 1999). Available at SSRN: or

Richard Bilder (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

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