International League for the Rights of Man Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The International League for the Rights of Man was among the first and most influential of the international nongovernmental organizations concerned with human rights. It had a direct influence on the explicit commitment to human rights assumed by the fledgling United Nations and worked to ensure that the U.N. remained true to that commitment.

Summary of Event

Although probably less well known than either Amnesty International or the International Commission of Jurists, the International League for Human Rights (ILHR, originally known as the International League for the Rights of Man) is one of the most important nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with human rights. The league is not only older than either of the other two organizations but also distinct from them in that it is uniquely devoted to the full range of human rights issues. While Amnesty International is concerned primarily with torture and political prisoners and the International Commission of Jurists with human rights and international law, the ILHR takes the wide-ranging Universal Declaration of Human Rights Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) , adopted by the United Nations in 1948, as its platform. International League for the Rights of Man Human rights;Nongovernmental organizations Nongovernmental organizations [kw]International League for the Rights of Man is Founded (1942) [kw]League for the Rights of Man is Founded, International (1942) [kw]Rights of Man is Founded, International League for the (1942) International League for the Rights of Man Human rights;Nongovernmental organizations Nongovernmental organizations [g]North America;1942: International League for the Rights of Man is Founded[00410] [g]United States;1942: International League for the Rights of Man is Founded[00410] [c]Human rights;1942: International League for the Rights of Man is Founded[00410] [c]Organizations and institutions;1942: International League for the Rights of Man is Founded[00410] Baldwin, Roger Nash Laugier, Henri Bonnet, Henri Malik, Charles Habib Shestack, Jerome Joseph

The International League for the Rights of Man was officially founded in 1942, six years before the declaration that would come to form its core platform. The league’s origins, however, can be traced to a citizens’ league that was created in France in 1902 to monitor and criticize the French government in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair and the rise of French anti-Semitism. The Ligue Française pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (French League for the Defense of the Rights of Man and of Citizens) French League for the Defense of the Rights of Man and of Citizens soon became interested in broader international human rights issues and grew to more than 200,000 members by the eve of World War I. The French league fostered the formation of similar organizations throughout Europe and the French colonial possessions of Tonkin, Martinique, and French Guiana. An international federation affiliating all these organizations, the Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme (International Human Rights Federation), was founded in 1922 under the auspices of the French league.

Roger Nash Baldwin, one of the principal founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920, visited Paris in 1927 and was permitted to attend meetings of the French league as a foreign observer. Baldwin’s interest in civil rights and liberties became increasingly international in focus, and he maintained contact with the league throughout the rest of the interwar period. With the fall of France in World War II, the French league was disbanded. Shortly thereafter, Baldwin encouraged the reconstitution of the organization in the United States. For this purpose, he gathered together a group of French émigrés and other interested individuals, among them Henri Laugier, Henri Bonnet, and Charles Habib Malik, in November of 1941. From this meeting emerged the new International League for the Rights of Man, incorporated under the laws of the state of New York in 1942. The league was to change its name formally in 1976 to the International League for Human Rights.

The reconstitution of the league in 1942 was propitious in that it occurred in the wake several events that brought human rights to international prominence. These included President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech, asserting universal human rights to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from need, and freedom from fear; the Atlantic Charter, in which Great Britain and the United States declared their commitment to the principle of self-determination for all postwar national governments; and the United Nations Declaration of early 1942, in which twenty-six countries pledged themselves to reestablish a collective security organization after the demise of the League of Nations.

Baldwin’s international league regarded the proposed United Nations as the principal organization through which the league would exert its influence and promote its interests. Working in cooperation with other NGOs, the league directed most of its early efforts at lobbying the drafters of the United Nations Charter to ensure that the relationship between international human rights and world peace would be recognized explicitly. The league’s efforts helped lead to seven specific references to human rights in the U.N. Charter, the establishment of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and the drafting of the commission’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The International League for the Rights of Man continued to emphasize working within the United Nations system in the postwar era. The league was given consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the International Labor Office (ILO), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It conducted lobbying activities in the U.N. General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights, and other U.N. organizations to promote the adoption of human rights declarations and covenants.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the league paid particular attention to the issue of decolonization, since it viewed the colonial system as a chief violator of human rights. By the 1970’s, the league had become disillusioned with the United Nations United Nations;human rights Human rights;United Nations and its apparent inability to make much of an impact on human rights. The league believed that, despite considerable pressure from nongovernmental organizations, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and its subcommission on the prevention of discrimination and the protection of minorities had failed to make effective use of their powers to investigate and make recommendations concerning human rights violations. Bureaucratic and procedural stonewalling kept most complaints about abuse and repression from reaching the stage of open discussion and recommendation by the commission. Moreover, the human rights commission attempted to restrict the consultative role and, thereby, the activist influence of NGOs in the United Nations.

The league perceived that human rights had become too closely linked to political relations between member states for the United Nations to deal effectively with allegations of abuse and repression. Under its chair, Jerome Joseph Shestack, the league pursued an increasing proportion of its activities outside the United Nations. The league expanded its efforts to conduct investigations of human rights abuses, send fact-finding missions to repressive nations, observe political trials, promote letter-writing campaigns, issue reports, and sponsor conferences on human rights. Still, the research and findings of league investigations continued to be an important source of information for the United Nations, which conducted almost no factual research of its own.


The expanded efforts and more formally organized and structured nature of the modern International League for Human Rights stood in marked contrast to the character of the early International League for the Rights of Man. In many respects, the early league was patterned on the model of the early American Civil Liberties Union American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Both organizations were influenced strongly by the policies and personality of Roger Baldwin. The early ACLU deliberately was created and maintained as a small, private, and informally organized association. This decision corresponded with Baldwin’s social philosophy and operational ideology, drawn from nineteenth century concepts of noblesse oblige and private charitable service. Recruitment to the early ACLU was based on an “old-boy” network of individuals known to and trusted by people already in the organization.

The early ACLU emphasized discreet lobbying activities and a faith in the rule of law and the judicial process as the primary venue in which to promote civil-libertarian interests. “Members” of the association existed only as a source of financial contributions to sustain the professional and legal activities of the organization’s staff. The early international league was modeled after the early ACLU; it operated initially as a small, private, and informally organized group and, in many ways, as a social organization for Baldwin and his associates. It was with the increasing importance in world affairs of international human rights issues in the decades after World War II that the league became more formally organized and expanded its efforts first within and later outside the United Nations.

The structure of the international league distinguished it from other human-rights NGOs. The league was a confederation of affiliated national civil-libertarian associations, an arrangement very much in keeping with the ideology and structure of the old French league. The international league’s affiliates were not simply chapters or sections of the league in different countries. Instead, they were established and functioning civil liberties groups working for the furtherance of human rights in their own nations. The league established its headquarters in New York City and counted among its affiliates the ACLU, the National Council of Civil Liberties in Great Britain, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the New Zealand Democratic Rights Council, and the Japanese Civil Liberties Union. The structure of the international league clearly reflected its belief that the principal protection of human rights must come through the implementation of national law.

The International League for Human Rights served as an adversarial human rights NGO. As an activist association, the ILHR functioned as a consultative and educational organization. At times, it both prompted and restrained government action in the interests of human rights. The ILHR concerned itself with such issues as the treatment of prisoners, torture, visa restrictions, family reunification, legal discrimination, religious intolerance, labor and minority rights, national independence movements, electoral fraud, and the death penalty. With such wide-ranging interests, the ILHR ranked as one of the most important human rights NGOs. The league contributed significantly to the shaping of public debate about international human rights and helped influence the foreign policies of many governments that reflected an increasing concern over human rights issues. International League for the Rights of Man Human rights;Nongovernmental organizations Nongovernmental organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alvarez, José E. International Organizations as Law-Makers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Study detailing the role of NGOs and other international organizations in shaping and even codifying international law. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Archer, Peter. “Action by Unofficial Organizations on Human Rights.” In The International Protection of Human Rights, edited by Evan Luard. New York: Praeger, 1967. Examines in detail the activities of the ILHR in conjunction with the United Nations as well as league campaigns outside the United Nations in the 1960’s. Article references and a good bibligraphy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buergenthal, Thomas, ed. Human Rights, International Law, and the Helsinki Accord. Montclair, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun, 1977. Examines the programs of the ILHR and its attempts to conduct more directly its human rights activities outside the United Nations. Good index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buergenthal, Thomas, Dinah Shelton, and David P. Stewart. International Human Rights in a Nutshell. 3d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2002. A simple but substantive introduction to the history, theory, and practice of international human rights. Indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drinan, Robert. Cry of the Oppressed: The History and Hope of the Human Rights Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987. Excellent general survey of human rights issues and organizational activities. Examines briefly the organization and policy of the ILHR. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lador-Lederer, J. International Group Protection. Leiden, the Netherlands: A. W. Sijthoff, 1968. Although somewhat dry and legalistic, a detailed and well-argued account of the organizational structures and functions of NGOs, including the ILHR. Excellent index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morsing, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Historical study of the document whose creation was influenced by the International League for the Rights of Man and which became the central platform of the league after it was promulgated.

Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination

United Nations Adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Geneva Conventions Establish Norms of Conduct in War

Categories: History