BERLIN -- Two centuries ago the American and French Revolutions brought forth the natural law concept of inalienable human rights. However, it took nearly two centuries of wars, political and social disasters, and decolonization before this idea became globally accepted, at least in theory.
In the beginning, the idea of human rights was limited to domestic politics. In international relations, power, not right, continued to be the only thing that mattered: the traditional concept of state sovereignty focused exclusively on power, i.e., on control over people and territory, and protected the state’s authority, regardless of whether its enforcement was civilized or brutal, democratic or authoritarian.
The Nuremberg Trials of the German war criminals after World War II marked the first important change in the world’s understanding of the concept of sovereignty. For the first time, an entire state leadership was put on trial for its crimes, as its representatives and henchmen were brought to justice.
The Nuremberg Trials and, in parallel, the creation of the United Nations and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signaled the growing importance of law in international relations. Sovereignty was no longer based solely on power, but increasingly on law and respect for the rights of citizens.