Brief History of International Law

  • U.N. Charter

    U.N. Charter
    The charter creating the United Nations (U.N.) is drafted by 50 of the original member countries, pledging "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war."
  • Court Creation

    Court Creation
    The U.N. charter creates the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to hear disputes between nations - but only when the parties agree to be bound by its decision.
  • Nuremberg

    The Allied Powers of World War II create the International Military Tribunal to prosecute Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg. Although war crimes had been defined by previous conventions, there was no effort to hold violators accountable for crimes in war until the tribunals.
  • Eastern Tribunal

    Eastern Tribunal
    The Allied Powers of World War II create a second war crimes court, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, to prosecute Japanese war criminals. In contrast to the Nuremberg trials, the Tokyo trials did prosecute rape. However, these prosecutions were only made in conjunction with other crimes and thus did not appear to constitute any major violation in their own right. The creation and frequent use of "comfort stations" (rape camps) was not addressed at all in the trials.
  • U.N. Resolution 260

    The U.N. General Assembly adopts Resolution 260, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
  • Human Rights Declaration

    Human Rights Declaration
    The U.N. General Assembly adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which forms the basis for action for promoting equal rights and freedoms. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited as the most influential member of the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights and adoption of the UDHR as her greatest legacy.
  • Geneva Conventions

    Geneva Conventions
    The fourth Geneva Convention provides standards for more humane treatment for prisoners of war, the wounded, and civilians.
  • European Commission

    European Commission on Human is created, giving a "political and legal environment common to all European countries."
  • The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women

    The U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) establishes the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women with a mandate to set standards of women’s rights, encourage governments to bring their laws into line with international conventions and to encourage global awareness of women’s rights.
  • Women’s Rights

    The U.N. Convention on the Political Rights of Women, designed to guarantee the equality of rights for men and women, enters into force.
  • Racial Discrimination Law

    The U.N. adopts the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This is the first of nine core international human rights instruments that provide the foundation for contemporary international law.
  • More Human Rights Instruments

    The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are adopted. Together these documents further develop the rights outlined in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. These are the second and third core human rights instruments.
  • Decade for Women

    Decade for Women
    The United Nation’s Decade for Women begins with U.N.-sponsored women’s conferences to evaluate the status of women and to formulate strategies for women’s advancement. These conferences are critical venues at which women come together, debate their differences and discovered their commonalties and gradually began learning to bridge differences to create a global movement.
  • First U.N. Women’s Conference

    First U.N. Women’s Conference
    The first global U.N. Women’s Conference opens in Mexico City with the goals of establishing full gender equality and the elimination of gender discrimination; the integration and full participation of women in development; and an increased contribution by women in the strengthening of world peace.

    The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) is created to provide frameworks and funding for programs designed to promote women’s rights.
  • Geneva Protocols

    The U.N. adopts additional protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that are designed to protect victims of international armed conflicts (ProtocoI I) and victims of non-international armed conflicts (Protocol II). This builds on the original Geneva Convention by covering civilians.
  • Anti-Discrimination

    The U.N. adopts the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It is often described as a "Bill of Rights" for women, as it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets forth an agenda for national action. It is the first and only comprehensive international treaty that guarantees women’s rights. The U.S. has not ratified CEDAW. This is the fourth core human rights instrument.
  • Second U.N. Women’s Conference

    Copenhagen hosts the second U.N. Women’s Conference. Watch a video about the conference
  • Anti-Torture

    U.N. General Assembly adopts the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This is the fifth of nine main international human rights instruments that provide the foundation for contemporary international law.
  • Trial of the Juntas

    Trial of the Juntas
    Argentina tries members of the de facto military who had engineered the "Dirty War," a five-year period of state-sponsored violence that killed or disappeared as many as 30,000 people. Nine top generals are convicted and sentenced to life in prison, setting a precedent that former government officials could be successfully tried for human rights abuses.
  • Third U.N. Women’s Conference

    The third United Nations Women’s Conference is held in Nairobi, where the Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women is adopted. The conference's main action is a review of progress made during the decade of women from 1975-1985.
  • Children’s Rights

    The U.N. adopts the Convention on the Rights of the Child, allowing for "children to develop their full potential, free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse." This is the sixth major human rights instrument.
  • Forced Disappearance

    Forced Disappearance
  • ICTY

    The International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is established in The Hague as an ad hoc international tribunal to prosecute persons responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes that occurred since 1991.
  • U.N. Human Rights Meeting

    The U.N. holds a World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. The conference adopts the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), which states that women’s rights are human rights and posits that agreements produced by international conferences are not legally binding but do have ethical and political weight and that can be used to pursue regional, national or local objectives.
  • Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women

    The U.N. General Assembly adopts the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It affirms that in cases of conflict between women’s human rights and cultural or religious practices, the human rights of women must prevail.
  • High Commissioner for Human Rights

    High Commissioner for Human Rights
    The U.N. establishes a post of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to protect the rights established under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Jose Ayala-Lasso becomes the first person to hold the post.
  • Truth and Reconciliation

    South Africa establishes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address human rights violations under apartheid and creates a model for future truth commissions.
  • Cairo Meeting

    Cairo Meeting
    Women secure another major step forward for reproductive rights at the International Conference on Population & Development in Cairo. The four goals of the conference are universal education, the reduction of infant and child mortality, reduction of maternal mortality and access to reproductive and sexual health services including family planning.
  • Fourth U.N. Women's Conference

    Fourth U.N. Women's Conference
    Beijing hosts the fourth World Conference on Women, drawing unprecedented turnout and attention to serious violations of the human rights of women. The Platform for Action designed at the conference is a global action plan for women’s equality, empowerment and justice.
  • Rwanda Tribunal

    Rwanda Tribunal
    The newly established International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) tries Rwandan politician Jean-Paul Akayesu for 15 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the Geneva Conventions. Testimony is used to establish how sexual violence had been a fundamental aspect of the genocide, making the trail a landmark in international prosecution by establishing that sexual violence is an act of genocide when committed with the specific intent to destroy another group.
  • Tadic Trial

    Tadic Trial
    In its first trial, the ICTY finds Bosnian Serb paramilitary Dusko Tadic guilty of "crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and violations of the customs of war" for his role in the mid-1990s Bosnian war. This case sets a precedent for the prosecution of gender-based crimes. This and the related Celebici case convict defendants for the rape of women prisoners and define it as torture, which is a "grave breach" of the Geneva Conventions.
  • New OHCHR Commissioner

    New OHCHR Commissioner
    Mary Robinson, the former President of the Republic of Ireland, becomes the second U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • International Criminal Court

    International Criminal Court
    The United Nations Rome Statute establishes the International Criminal Court (ICC), a permanent tribunal that can investigate and try individuals, including political and military leaders, for the most serious international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
  • Action Plan for Gender Issues

    The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adopts an Action Plan for Gender Issues, "a set of guidelines aimed at ensuring gender equality."
  • U.N. Resolution 1325

    The U.N. Security Council adopts Resolution 1325, a watershed moment for women's rights, as it is the first U.N. resolution that deals with the impact of armed conflicts on women. The resolution "reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction."
  • Group of Eight Forum

    Rome hosts a Group of Eight (G8) Foreign Ministers' Meetings, at which the Roma Initiatives on Conflict Prevention concludes that the role of women in conflict prevention needs to be strengthened.
  • Sierra Leone Court

    Sierra Leone Court
    The U.N. approves the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) to try those responsible for the crimes committed during the country’s decade-long civil war. Based in the country where the atrocities were committed and combining international and domestic law, the SCSL ushers in a new generation of international tribunals.
  • Khmer Trials

    Khmer Trials
    The United Nations reaches a draft agreement with the Cambodian government for an international criminal tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders, who are accused of perpetrating a genocide between 1975 and 1979.
  • Beijing Platform

    Women assess their gains at the ten-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action and successfully defeat a proposal led by the U.S. government for an anti-abortion amendment to the declaration.
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

    The U.N adopts the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is the last of the nine core international human rights instruments that provide the foundation for contemporary international law.
  • U.N. Resolution 1820

    The U.N. Security Council passes Resolution 1820, which recognizes war-time rape as a security issue that warrants a security response. Resolution 1820 specifically looks at sexual violence, noting that "rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide." Its adoption signals that mass rape has graduated from a humanitarian issue to a foreign policy priority.
  • Secretary Clinton

    Secretary Clinton
    In her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she will put women’s issues at the core of U.S. foreign policy. "I happen to believe that the transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress." As her policy evolves she makes the fight against mass rape a major theme in a foreign policy that focuses on the plight of women in the developing world.
  • U.S. Senate Involvement

    The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee puts Sen. Barbara Boxer in charge of the newly created Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women's Issues.
  • State Department Women’s Chair

    State Department Women’s Chair
    President Barack Obama creates the new State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues (GWI) and chooses Melanne Verveer as its ambassador-at-large. The GWI’s mandate is to work for the political, economic, and social empowerment of women.
  • U.N. Resolution 1888

    The U.N. Security Council adopts Resolution 1888, which builds on and strengthens 1820. Resolution 1888 condemns sexual violence in war zones and appeals for global action to combat the phenomenon. The resolution also creates a special U.N. envoy to coordinate efforts to combat the use of rape as a weapon of war and directs the Secretary-General to dispatch a team of experts to advise governments on how best to prosecute offenders.
  • New U.N. Role

    New U.N. Role
    The U.N. General Assembly approves the creation of a new U.N. Secretary-General for women’s affairs. Former Chilean President Michele Bachelet will head a single office to ensure greater coordination and synergies and raise the profile of women’s issues at the U.N. Secretariat in New York and in U.N. missions abroad.