What are human rights? Human rights are a set of norms, or standards of behavior, that are intended to protect us so that we are able to live full lives, free from fear and abuse.
Rights inherent to all human beings
“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible.” – Definition of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Human rights are a set of norms, or standards of behavior, that are intended to protect us so that we are able to live full lives, free from fear and abuse. They are rights that belong to all people, just by virtue of being human. Although the term “human rights” first became widely used in the 17th century in Europe, the rights themselves have their roots in ancient times. Most societies created traditions and responsibilities to protect individuals and build healthy communities by, for example, outlawing crimes like murder, rape, and theft. We learn about these from oral and written histories. Some of the earliest written records are in the texts of the world’s major religions — the Muslim Quran, the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, the Hindu Vedas. They are also to be found in the essays of the ancient Greeks, Arab and Chinese philosophers, and the laws of Rome.
The language of human rights in politics came into use later, in documents like the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791), which all speak of human rights. But these were not universal laws. They were national laws and reflected the politics, cultures, and values of their nations at those times. They discriminated against women, against certain religious and ethnic groups, and accepted slavery.
Human rights as we know them today are universal and have their history in many struggles. There were the struggles of the abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries to put an end to slavery in the US; the American and European suffragettes’ struggles in the 19th and 20th centuries for women’s equality; the anti-colonial struggles in America in the 18th century and in Asia and Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries; and workers’ ongoing struggles for better wages and health and safety standards in the workplace.
Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. – Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
These struggles were often violent, and many people died fighting for their rights. But it took two world wars and mass slaughter before human rights as we know them today came into being. The savagery of the First World War (1914-1918), in which over 40 million soldiers and civilians died on both sides, led to the creation of the League of Nations. The League tried to address human and minority rights and to regulate relationships between states to prevent war. However, the League collapsed, largely because of the failure of the major world powers to participate.
The Second World War (1939-1945) included genocide — the murder of six million European Jews and other minority groups, like Roma Gypsies — by Germany’s Nazi regime led by the dictator Adolf Hitler. It also saw mass rapes by invading armies in Europe, China, and Southeast Asia; indiscriminate bombings of civilians by German, UK, US, and Japanese air forces; and torture and starvation of thousands of prisoners of war. When the war ended in 1945, the victorious Allied Powers led by the US, the UK, and the former Soviet Union brought the international community together to create an organization that would promote peace and human rights. This was the United Nations (UN).
The UN has four main aims:
- To keep peace in the world;
- To develop friendly relations among nations;
- To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease, and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;
- To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.
Human rights and the United Nation charter
The founding document of the United Nations is the UN Charter, which was signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. The UN Charter is a multilateral treaty and is the highest authority in international law. This means that the UN Charter overrides any other treaties or agreements which UN member states sign. This is stated in Article 103, which says: “In the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.” — UN Charter, Article 103.
In 1945, 51 states signed the UN Charter. Today, the UN has 193 member states — every country in the world except Vatican City. All of these states are legally bound by the provisions of the UN Charter and recognize the UN Charter’s authority in international law.
Human rights for all
The UN Charter laid the foundation for the creation of international human rights for all:
- Article 55 says that the UN should promote universal rights for all;
- Article 56 says each member state should help the UN achieve these goals; and
- Article 68 called on the UN’s Economic and Social Council to create a commission to promote human rights.
Troubled beginnings: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
In 1947, in line with Article 68 of the UN Charter, the UN formed the Commission on Human Rights. The first task of the Commission, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, was to reach an agreement on a set of human rights that would be acceptable to all nations. The drafting process was troubled by many disagreements. The delegates to the Commission represented the various nations of the UN and came from many different backgrounds, languages, religions, and cultures. They had widely differing political and economic interests and ideologies. They were government officials and thus represented the policies of their nations.
The main disagreements facing the Commission arose out of different positions taken up by the two big power groups, or “blocs” that dominated the UN. These were the Western bloc, led by the US and the UK; and the Soviet bloc, led by the Soviet Union. The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of the Cold War between capitalist countries, of which the biggest was the US, and socialist countries, represented by the Soviet Union. The two groups took fundamentally different ideological positions.
The three most controversial issues were
- political and civil rights,
- social and economic rights and
- the question of enforcement — should human rights be legally binding in international law?
The Soviet bloc was supportive of economic and social human rights. However, because their centralized state structure included the domination of minority ethnic groups within the Soviet Union, they were less enthusiastic about political and civil rights. The Western bloc was more in favor of civil and political rights. However, the positions of the UK and other European states were compromised because they ruled colonies in which the majority of people were denied basic human rights, including the right to vote. Weakening the US position was the existence of widespread legal discrimination against black Americans, who were also not allowed to vote.
All human rights for all.
— Slogan adopted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998
On the question of enforcement, the two blocs agreed: both were strongly opposed to the creation of an agency that would ensure that
human rights for all were implemented and enforced. The main argument against the creation of a binding treaty and enforcement agency was that the implementation of human rights was an internal matter for each state. Enforcement would therefore infringe on a state’s sovereignty. There was a third bloc at the UN, which included developing nations. They were not united, though in general, they supported both sets of rights (civil and political as well as social and economic rights) and the creation of an enforcement agency.
Birth of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
To prevent a deadlock, the Commission’s chairperson, Eleanor Roosevelt, proposed the idea of a “declaration” of general human rights principles rather than a treaty that would be binding in international law. Finally, an agreement was reached, and on December 10, 1948, the General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In adopting the UDHR, the Assembly called on all member states to publicize the text of the declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, History of the Document)
The UDHR was the first international recognition that human rights and fundamental freedoms apply to everyone, everywhere. December 10 is celebrated every year, across the world, as International Human Rights Day. In some countries, it is a national holiday. Many countries have included human rights based on the UDHR in their national constitutions and laws. However, what happens in practice is very different and human rights violations still take place in most parts of the world. The question of enforcement remains controversial, and one of the main criticisms of the UN, especially in relation to human rights, is that it lacks teeth. Over the years, however, the UN has grown some teeth.
The UDHR forms the basis of over 60 international treaties and has been translated into over 330 languages, making it the most
translated document in the world. The UDHR is the global standard for human rights. It has 30 articles that cover a wide range of political, social, and economic rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and security; freedom from violence, torture, and wrongful imprisonment, and the rights to freedom of movement and freedom of expression. The UDHR laid the foundation for international human rights law, making it clear that every person has a “birthright” to fundamental human rights and is therefore not subject to the whims of the state. The 30 articles are expressed clearly and simply, and one of the main functions of the declaration is to raise awareness of human rights.
Definitions of human rights
The UN definition:
“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible.”
This is how the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) defines human rights. The OHCHR is the agency mandated by the UN to promote and protect human rights. The OHCHR also monitors human rights violations and has powers to recommend enforcement of human rights in countries that are members of the UN.
[The UDHR] is an educational document because it is simply a declaration that sets standards and puts down things for which we want to strive. It has no legally binding value, but it is a preparation for the coming bill of rights. When the Covenant is written, then we will have to be prepared to ask our various nations to ratify that Covenant and to accept the fact that the Covenant has legal binding value.
– Eleanor Roosevelt, speaking at the second National Conference on UNESCO in 1949
Here is how Amnesty International describes human rights:
“Human rights are basic rights and freedoms that all people are entitled to regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, language, or another status. Human rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and freedom of expression; and social, cultural, and economic rights including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, and the right to work and receive an education. Human rights are protected and upheld by international and national laws and treaties.”
Amnesty International is one of the leading civil society organizations that promote human rights and fights human rights abuses.
There are many different ways of defining and describing human rights. Each definition will reflect particular intentions and interests. But most will include, or imply these four elements:
- Human rights are universal. We have human rights simply because we are human.
- Protection, especially from abuse by those in power. Human rights ensure that people can live in freedom and security
- Equality. Everyone has them equally. You do not have more human rights than I do. I do not have more than you.
- Human rights are international and set standards for the behavior of states, groups, and individuals.
Three generations of rights
The UDHR creates three generations (categories) of human rights. These are first, second, and third-generation rights. The generations
are grouped in relation to the three slogans of the French Revolution (1789-1799), which led to the creation of a republic in France
— liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity).
First-generation rights concern liberty and participation in political life. They are fundamentally civil and political in nature. They limit the power of the state over citizens and aim to prevent abuse by those in power. They are set out in Articles 2-21 of the UDHR. First-generation rights include:
- Freedom from all forms of discrimination; for example, on the basis of gender and race.
- The right to life, liberty, and security.
- Freedom from slavery and forced labor.
- Freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and punishment.
- Freedom from arrest without cause or judicial process, detention, or exile.
- The right to a fair and public trial.
- The right to privacy.
- Freedom of movement and residence.
- The right to seek asylum from prosecution.
- Freedom of conscience, religion, and thought.
- Freedom of opinion and expression.
- Freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
- The right to take part in government and to vote.
- The right to own property and not to be deprived of it arbitrarily.
Second-generation rights concern social, economic, and cultural equality. They include the equal rights of everyone to education, healthcare, and housing, and to take part in cultural activities. Governments are expected to take affirmative action to achieve these rights. However, not all governments can afford universal education and healthcare, or to house all citizens, so they are incremental. This means that governments must demonstrate that they are taking positive steps to achieve them and enter into agreements with other governments and international organizations that can help them through aid.
Second-generation rights are set out in Articles 22-27 of the UDHR and include:
- The right to social security.
- The right to work and to protection against unemployment.
- The right to rest and leisure, including public holidays with pay.
- The right to an adequate standard of living.
- The right to education.
- The right to take part in cultural and scientific activities and to the protection of one’s scientific and artistic creations.
Third generation rights concern fraternity, meaning brotherhood or solidarity, and are sometimes called “solidarity”
rights. They include the right of everyone to a sustainable, clean and healthy environment, to social development, and to other collective or group, rather than individual, rights. They are set out in Articles 28 and 29 of the UDHR.
Positive rights, negative rights
Human rights theory distinguishes between negative and positive rights.
A negative right is your right not to be interfered with. For example, the government may not take away your right to freedom of expression, to marry the person of your choice, or to have a family. First-generation rights are negative rights in that they protect individuals from state interference with their liberties.
A positive right is your right to receive goods or services; for example, welfare support, healthcare, or a place to live. Second and
third generation rights are positive rights.