International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Fall 2009 Issue

Leading Figures in International Law


Sean MacBride

By: Carolyn Dubay, Editorial Assistant and Reporter, International Judicial Monitor

Sean MacBride

Sean MacBride (b. 1/26/1904 – d. 1/15/1988) left an indelible mark on the development of international human rights law throughout his decades of service to the world community.   For his lifetime of achievements, including working towards the creation of the European Court of Human Rights, co-founding Amnesty International, advocating for the creation of the position of UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, and myriad other accomplishments, MacBride was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.  MacBride was also the recipient of the Lenin International Prize for Peace in 1977, the American Medal for Justice in 1978, and the Dag Hammarskjold Award in 1980. 

MacBride’s life story unfolded in circumstances and a time that gave meaning to the concept that the personal is political.  As the son of exiled Irish revolutionaries, MacBride was born and raised through his teenage years in France.   Returning to Ireland, MacBride himself became involved in the movement for Irish independence, and also worked as a journalist and in political organizations.  For his political activity, MacBride was imprisoned several times – personal experiences that followed him in his advocacy of civil and political rights, as well as the rights of journalists.  After being called to the Irish bar in the 1930s, MacBride later rose to political power in Ireland.  His post as the Minister of External Affairs from 1948 to 1951 in the crucial post-World War II era marked a turning point in his career from Irish statesman to international advocate, diplomat and scholar. 

MacBride’s central role in shaping the international institutions that emerged in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II stemmed from his fervent desire to build international relationships based on a commitment to securing peace through the rule of law and democratic values.  MacBride, as the Irish foreign minister, advocated strenuously for strong international organizations that could help secure justice for the victims of human rights violations.  International law, MacBride believed, could best serve as an instrument to promote peace if it promoted justice and accountability to the rule of law.  As he commented in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, “[i]t is important that rulers and religious and political leaders should realize that there can be no peace without justice” and that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights “was, and remains, the most important declaration ever adopted by mankind. It should be taught as a text in all the schools; it should be displayed in all parliaments; it should be used as a text by the churches.”[i]  

Firmly committed to establishing institutions that would assert the rule of law over the rule of men, MacBride in his early years as a diplomat helped found the Council of Europe and served as President of its Committee of Ministers and later chair of its Council of Foreign Ministers.  MacBride was also a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the European Convention on Human Rights, with its groundbreaking provisions establishing the European Court of Human Rights as a forum for individuals to enforce human rights obligations against member governments of the Council of Europe.   As MacBride proclaimed to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers at their Fifth Session in August 1950, "a Convention on Human rights, which did not grant any right of redress to individuals, was not worth the paper it was written on."[ii]  MacBride would later advocate for an international criminal tribunal to try gross violations of human rights – an institution that would not come to fruition until after his death.

MacBride not only believed in strong international governing institutions, but he devoted himself to establishing the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in promoting civil and human rights.  Most notably, MacBride was a co-founder of Amnesty International and served as chairman of its International Executive Committee from 1961 to 1975.  During this time, MacBride also served as the Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists (from 1963 to 1970) and the Chairman and later President of the Geneva-based International Peace Bureau (from 1968 to 1985).[iii]   In these roles, MacBride continued to push for the development of conventions, institutions and organizations to protect human rights, including the creation of the position of UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and conventions to protect journalists from human rights violations during times of armed conflict.

Sean MacBride’s career also was reflective of his commitment to the United Nations and the role it could play in establishing international human rights standards and promoting peace.  He served as the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and the United Nations Commissioner for Namibia from 1973 to 1977.  He also later chaired an international commission investigating alleged human rights violations by Israel during its invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s, which led to a report entitled Israel in Lebanon: Report of the International Commission to Enquire into Reported Violations of International Law by Israel During its Invasion of the Lebanon (1983).

Never forgetting his experience as a journalist, MacBride had a keen interest in the importance of media flows in shaping public opinion and its impact on government accountability.  In 1977, MacBride was appointed by UNESCO to serve as the President of the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems (known as the MacBride Commission).  The MacBride Commission was tasked with studying international communication and information flows and global communications policies.  Ultimately, the Commission published a report entitled Many Voices, One World in 1980.  The MacBride Report, as it was called, concluded that the free flow of information was dominated by powerful Western nations to the detriment of developing countries and made a number of recommendations to improve perceived imbalances in the flow of information and media communications from north to south.   While some suggest that the MacBride Report, among other issues with UNESCO, triggered the United States to eventually withdraw from UNESCO under the Reagan Administration, Many Voices One World continues to be influential in understanding the impact of western media flows on the Third World.

Despite the tremendous commitment MacBride made to the international community, he remained throughout his life dedicated to improving the human rights of his Irish countrymen and women.  One of his many achievements in this area was to establish what became known as the MacBride Principles, a set of corporate codes of conduct aimed at ensuring that foreign countries doing business in Northern Ireland would provide equal treatment to Catholic workers in that Protestant-dominated area.   These principles were successfully implemented into law in many state legislatures in the United States as “MacBride” bills.[iv]

After a long and distinguished career, MacBride died in 1988 in Dublin at age 1983.

For further reading by or about Sean MacBride, see:
Sean MacBride, The Enforcement of the International Law of Human Rights, 1981 U. Ill. L. Rev. 385 (1981).

Sean MacBride, The MacBride Principles (Irish National Caucus, Wash., D.C., 1984).

Anthony Jordan, Sean MacBride: A Biography (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1993).

Elizabeth Keane, Seán MacBride: a life (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 2007).

Sean MacBride et al., Israel in Lebanon: Report of the International Commission to Enquire into Reported Violations of International Law by Israel During its Invasion of the Lebanon (1983).

Sean MacBride, North-South Dialogue, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 3, at 385 (July 1982)

William Schabas, Ireland, the European Convention of Human Rights and the Personal Contribution of Sean MacBride, in John Morison, Kieran McEvoy and Gordon Anthony (ed.), Judges, Transition and Human Rights (Oxford University Press 2007).

Sean MacBride, UNESCO, Many Voices, One World:  Communication's Society, Today & Tomorrow: Report by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems (1980).

[i] MacBride’s Nobel Address is available at:

[ii] Quoted from NUI Galway University webpage available at:

[iii] The International Peace Bureau today grants the Sean MacBride Peace Prize to “a person or organisation that has done outstanding work for peace, disarmament and/or human rights.”  See 

[iv] See generally Matthew S. Draper, What Ann Arbor Could Learn from Ulster:  The Implementation of the MacBride Principles, 24 Penn. State Int’l L. Rev. 177 (Summer 2005); Neil J. Conway, Investment Responsibility in Northern Ireland: The MacBride Principles of Fair Employment, 24 Loy. Int'l & Comp. L. Rev. 1, 15 (2002).

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© 2009 – The International Judicial Academy with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

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