There is a common misconception that international human rights are enforced only when the leader of an abusive regime--Sudan's Bashir or Syria's Assad, for example--is captured and transferred to an international court or when the Security Council musters the necessary votes to impose sanctions or authorize humanitarian intervention to halt human rights abuses. These things do happen on occasion, but only when state interests (especially among the permanent members of the Security Council) are aligned properly. The Russian and Chinese veto of a Security Council resolution calling for the ouster of Assad in Syria last week, with what appear to be tragic consequences, offers an example of a political failure to enforce human rights.
The Syrian case is especially tragic because innocent people are being killed by government forces as an authoritarian regimes clings to power. But the international human rights regime deals with far more than threats to life and liberty. There are many other human rights that require monitoring, and occasionally enforcement, under circumstances in which neither the Security Council nor a hegemonic state is likely to take much notice. Sometimes, in fact, it is the hegemonic state that needs a dose of enforcement activity. How are human rights enforced in these circumstances?
California provides a good example with respect to the right to a free public education. The right is guaranteed in international human rights law and in California's constitution. As an example of the former, consider Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, in part, "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages." (The UDHR is widely regarded as an expression of customary international law in spite of the fact that it was adopted in 1948 as a non-binding resolution of the United Nations General Assembly.) Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that "Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all." In California, the right to education is found in Article 9 of the constitution: "The Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district." (Article 9 actually includes about 2600 words, many having to do with the State Board of Education, public universities and boards of regents, textbooks, teachers, and many other matters more appropriate to a legal code than a fundamental statement of rights.) The point, of course, is that the right to a free public education, which is a part of the contemporary international human rights regime, is embedded in California law where the right is realized. (In point of fact, the right was embedded in California law long before the UDHR was drafted. It would be accurate to say, certainly in this instance, that the UDHR articulates a right guaranteed in some but not all parts of the world in 1948.)
Unfortunately, budget cuts in California have weakened the state's commitment to an educational system that is "free to all," at least in its primary and secondary stages. To compensate for declining revenues, many school districts have asked students and their families to pay for athletic uniforms, art supplies, and even workbooks for Spanish classes and novels for English classes.
In September 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action suit on behalf of students forced to pay fees for a variety of required educational materials. One student paid $440 annually for various fees, an amount that presented a financial hardship for the family.
Two weeks ago, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carl West denied a motion to dismiss filed by the state. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Ricardo Lara is pushing legislation that will require school superintendents to monitor all schools under their supervision to ensure that illegal fees are not being imposed in violation of the constitutional--and international human rights--requirement that the state provide a free public education.
This is how international human rights ought to be--and sometimes are--enforced. A particular right such as the right to a free public education, expressed in general terms in international law, is incorporated into the constitutional or statutory law of individual states in a form appropriate to the local culture. Robust civil society groups, such as the ACLU in the United States, monitor compliance with the law and, when necessary, go to court to demand compliance, even as legislatures act to strengthen the law.