UCL Faculty of Laws


Human Rights Beyond Borders

This project aims to provide a critical evaluation of the law and policy of whether and to what extent international human rights law is and should be applicable to states extraterritorially

Human Rights Beyond Borders

This project is led by Ralph WildeThe first phase, funded by a grant from the European Research Council, addresses whether and in what circumstances human rights law applies extraterritorially. This will be completed at the end of 2023. The main publication, a CUP monograph entitled Applying Human Rights Beyond Borders: Whether and How International Human Rights Law Applies Extraterritorially will go to press then.  The next phase, concerned with what human rights law requires when it applies extraterritorially, case studies, and enforcement, will be conducted in 2024. The main publication, a CUP monograph entitled Understanding Human Rights Beyond Borders: What International Human Rights Law Requires, Case Studies and Enforcement Extraterritoriallywill go to press at the end of that year.  The final phase, concerned with interdisciplinary approaches, will be conducted in 2025. The main publication, a CUP monograph entitled Critiquing Human Rights Law Beyond Borders: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Extraterritorial Application of Human Rights Law will go to press at the end of that year. Existing publications from the project, a series of book chapters and journal articles, can be found below. More will be added when they are published. For the first phase of the project, Dr Karen Da Costa and Dr Lorenzo Gasbarri were the project Research Fellows.

Extraterritorial human rights concerns

States have an impact on human rights not only in their own territories. Also, often there is an extraterritorial impact - on people in the rest of the world.

For civil and political rights, relevant extraterritorial activity includes war, occupation, other military action, anti-migration and anti-piracy initiatives at sea, sanctions, extraordinary rendition, strikes by so-called ‘drones’ and the operation of extraterritorial detention and interrogation sites housing combatants and migrants, including refugees.

Just as the attacks on 9/11 resulted in a global policy focus on terrorist threats, so too the range and significance of extraterritorial actions commenced or continuing over and beyond the decade since then, have led to greater critical attention being focused on the impact on human rights outside their borders of the actions of states.

For socio-economic rights, the widening gap between the global rich and the global poor, and the increasing appreciation of ideas of interdependence and common responsibilities in the context of globalization, have led to a renewed focus on the obligations of the economically advantaged towards those less fortunate. 

Also, concerns have been raised about the potentially negative effect of development assistance on civil and political rights, the misuse of aid money by oppressive governments, and the harm caused by economic sanctions to ordinary people. Moreover, fundamental challenges are made to the legitimacy and viability of the economic models promoted through development policies and enabled by the structures of international economic relations.

The potential role of international human rights law

Public policy on the obligations of States towards human rights outside their territories has a legal dimension in international human rights law.

However, for civil and political rights, it has been asked whether certain activities, notably those associated with the war on terror and the policies of President Obama of a similar nature, such as drone strikes, take place in a ‘legal black hole,’ usually taken to denote the absence of rules providing checks and balances against abuses. 

Indeed, whether and to what extent international human rights law applies extraterritorially to these activities is contested, and uncertain. The case law and commentary is sparse and often highly situation-specific, and states take varying and mutually inconsistent positions on it.

Similarly, the extraterritorial application of socio-economic obligations is unclear and disputed. The two concepts associated an obligatory global redistribution of wealth – the ‘right to development’ and the target of 0.7% of GDP allocated to overseas aid, implicated in the Millennium Development Goals – involve fundamental disagreement and uncertainty on the quantum involved and, indeed, whether there is even obligation in the first place.

Critiques of development models include the charge that the global normative regime is, if anything, part more of the problem than of the solution. Moreover, whether obligations concerning the negative impact of aid policy on civil and political rights even exist is disputed and under-explored.

The project

This project aims to provide a critical evaluation of the law and policy of whether and to what extent human rights law is and should be applicable to states extraterritorially.


Below are details of the project publications currently available. There are more to come. When they are available they will be posted here; if you would like to be sent a copy, please email hrbb@ucl.ac.uk

Audio and video

Ralph Wilde's presentation on the global refugee crisis


Project email address: hrbb@ucl.ac.uk

Please contact us with any questions about the project, and/or if you would like to be added to a database of contacts to be provided with project updates, including information about new publications.