Robertson begins with a brief history of human rights in two chapters. The first starts with the idea of natural rights, progresses through the American and French Revolutions and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the nineteenth century aversion to natural rights, and H.G. Wells, and ends with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The second traces the "inglorious" history of human rights in the post-war period, looking at the ineffectual Human Rights Commission (responsible for enforcing the UDHR) and Human Rights Committee (set up with the later Civil Rights Covenant). Regionally the European Convention and the European Court of Human Rights have been more successful, while the African Charter is a "sad joke". Realpolitik — such diverse factors as China's seat on the UN Security Council and CNN television broadcasts — is unavoidable and successes have been marred by failure in Rwanda and Srebrenica.
Going into more detail, Robertson then explains the gradual progress of some of the rights in the various treaties and covenants towards at least notionally enforceable international law. He explains the bases for such law: international agreements, the custom and practice of states, principles of law recognised by civilized nations, and judicial decisions and texts. Legal complexities and an assortment of Latin tags (such as opinio juris and erga omnes) are made clear in plain English. Among the best recognised rights in the UDHR are such individual freedoms as safety of the person, fairness and due process in trials, and property. Controversial areas not or poorly covered include freedom from execution, minority rights, and economic and social rights. Robertson describes the ongoing debates over capital punishment (and the methods used to make it as difficult as possible where actual abolition has proved impossible) and the progress in extending indigenous and minority rights beyond a bare "right to exist".
Turning to war law, Robertson covers old ideas of "just war", the Hague conventions, the 1949 Geneva conventions, and the 1997 Geneva protocols (the latter "badly drafted exercises in cynical diplomacy"). And he chronicles the limited success of attempts to restrict chemical and nuclear weapons and conventional weapons such as landmines. The Nuremberg trials were a turning point in war law, a procedural as well as a legal precedent. Robertson covers them in some detail, as well as the broader move to universal jurisdiction over the crimes of genocide, torture, and apartheid (in addition to earlier staples of international law such as piracy and slavery).
Some governments with appalling human rights records have been toppled in the last few decades. But bringing offenders to justice has been hindered by broad (and sometimes self-granted) impunities, immunities, and amnesties. Robertson looks at the workings of truth commissions and amnesties in "transitional" regimes in South and Central America, Cambodia, South Africa, and elsewhere.
In 1993 the UN created the Hague Tribunal to try crimes against humanity ("serious violations of international humanitarian law") in the former Yugoslavia. Analysing the Tribunal's strengths and weaknesses, Robertson describes the its legal basis, procedures, and actual operation in the case of Dusko Tadic, the first to be convicted by it. In a similar vein he then looks at the International Criminal Court, describing the political struggles behind the 1998 Rome Statute that created it, its jurisdiction and powers, and the procedural machinery (trial process, appeals, punishments) established. Though the Court was weakened to appease the United States, neither they, China, or India voted for it. Despite this and other problems Robertson is guardedly optimistic about the Court's future, suggesting that "its seven-year review conference may be the occasion for making universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity truly universal".
The final chapter looks at the case of General Pinochet, still before the courts when Crimes Against Humanity went to press.