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The Elgar Encyclopedia of Human Rights

Prof Dr Christina Binder,* Prof Dr Manfred Nowak,** Dr Jane A Hofbauer,*** and Mr Philipp Janig****

The Elgar Encyclopedia of Human Rights – the first entries of which just went online (here) – sets out to be the most comprehensive reference work in international human rights law available today. Edited by us, its launch is the culmination of close to three years of work, to which hundreds of people around the world have contributed.

The idea for compiling an Encyclopedia dedicated to international human rights law is based on the realization that the fight for human rights remains a constant struggle. More than 70 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ‘as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’. To this day, human rights remain the only universally recognized value system of our global community. They represent the values we collectively seek to protect and the core needs that every human being should be able to meet in order to uphold their inherent dignity. The decades since the UDHR have witnessed the construction and expansion of a new and expansive international legal framework aimed at protecting human rights.

However, from the outset, the protection of human rights has faced all kinds of pressures. As some of them have faded away, we witnessed (intermittent) periods of optimism – most notably during the 1990s, in which also the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights has made important strides. Nevertheless, many others persist and new ones continue to arise. These emanate from all kinds of sources: political structures (such as autocratic regimes), the consequences and impacts tied to globalization and the change of economic systems (leading to poverty and growing inequality), developmental and environmental threats (including climate change), new technologies (such as digitalization or AI) or – as the COVID-19 pandemic most recently demonstrated – infectious diseases. They will not disappear any time soon.

In addressing these challenges, international human rights law operates as a legal framework that provides certain parameters, guiding and limiting the conduct by states and (increasingly) non-state actors. However, applying and developing these parameters does not occur in a vacuum. Rather it requires a committed human rights community with a deep understanding of the various legal and social factors involved. In the past, this has allowed us to recognize the interconnectedness of economic and political needs, overcoming the (ideological) separation into different generations of human rights and rather examine all types of issues through the common frame of ‘respect – protect – fulfil’. As of today, a lot of focus in that regard rests on our relationship with the environment, in particular, due to the climate crisis.

For instance, the existence of environmental limits has spurred the realization that we need to take account of inter-generational aspects in the implementation of present-day policies and just a few weeks ago, the UN Human Rights Council recognized the ‘right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment’(here) as a stand-alone human right for the first time ever. When faced with similar issues in the future, human rights scholars and activists will similarly have to further doctrinal and normative developments in developing new rights or reimaging the scope of existing ones. However, undertaking any solid construction requires a proper understanding of the existing foundations.

We hope that the Elgar Encyclopedia of Human Rights provides the starting point for that knowledge. At the outset of the project, we drew up more than 300 entries to be included in the Encyclopedia, a list that since then has grown to around 340 entries. They will be listed alphabetically in multiple volumes. These entries range from substantive rights as protected by international instruments and developed by case law, over doctrinal and general international law issues, including the relationship of human rights with other fields of international law such as international environmental law or international investment law. Other entries focus on the various legal instruments, bodies, and types of procedures which are in place for the protection of international human rights, as well as on particular groups, topics, themes and debates.

Beyond classical doctrinal legal research, our authors also engage in theoretical debates, explore emerging fields or bring input from the broader social sciences. Our aim was that each entry be accessible for young Ph.D. students, while simultaneously providing a reliable point of reference for practitioners and more senior academics. Given the continuing developments shaping the field, the entries seek to provide clear and concise explanations of the basic principles that govern the subject matter. Since the Encyclopedia was initially conceived in a pre-COVID world, we all witnessed (and continue to witness) first-hand the recalibration that such events prompt in human rights architecture. Thus, our aim for the (at times extensive) review process was to strike the necessary balance between being accessible and comprehensive, being up to date, without risking being immediately overtaken by the inevitable developments.

That was certainly a considerable challenge and the Encyclopedia of Human Rights, like any large project, owes its existence to the participation of a large number of committed and dedicated individuals. We are extremely grateful to the authors that have joined the project. That group consists of close to 300 people from more than 65 countries, in all regions of the world. It also represents a true reflection of the breadth and diversity of the human rights scholarship world today. It includes young voices as well more senior experts in their field: among them renowned academics, current, and former UN Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts, judges of international and regional (human rights) courts, members of universal and regional human rights bodies, members of the International Law Commission, as well as legal advisors of foreign offices and international and non-governmental organizations.

The Elgar Encyclopedia of Human Rights has launched with 70 entries in October 2021, with new ones being continuously added in the following months. As of today, the print publication (here) is expected in late-2022.

* Prof Dr Christina Binder, Professor of International Law and International Human Rights Law, Bundeswehr University Munich.

** Prof Dr Manfred Nowak, Professor, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights

*** Dr Jane A. Hofbauer, Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer, Bundeswehr University Munich

**** Mr Philipp Janig, Researcher and Lecturer, Bundeswehr University Munich

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