The idea that every person, regardless of their beliefs, background or any other factor, is entitled to a set of inalienable rights – ‘human rights’ – is actually somewhat new. Although the concept of human rights can be found throughout history, from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi to religious texts such as the Bible and the Quran, it was not until the middle of the 20th century that human rights became a global concept. And that’s because the atrocities of the Second World War brought into focus the need to establish certain rights that all humans share.
What are human rights: definition
There are countless definitions of human rights, from the straight-forward dictionary definition of “a right which is believed to belong to every person” to the more elaborate definition from the United Nations as “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.” The various definitions share one thing in common: human rights belong to everyone.
But perhaps it’s best to think of human rights as the tools we need to build the lives we want to live and the communities we want to live in. The concept of human rights is relatively new, but it seeks to answer an age-old question: how can we make sure that those who have power in society use it for the good of the group?
There are some examples of laws being made to safeguard people from abuse and give everyone more of a say in society over time, like humanitarian law, the abolition of slavery and the protection of minorities after WWI. But it’s not until after WWII that we get the first proper articulation of human rights.
What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first ‘worldwide’ catalogue of human rights. It wasn’t intended to be binding. But over time it has acquired the status of customary international law, and all the rights it contains have since been put into legally binding treaties, to which most governments have committed themselves.
The UDHR was adopted in 1948, and the date is not random. As mentioned, the answer to the question “why were human rights created?” is, in a modern context, World War II. From the Holocaust to the Nanking Massacre and so many other horrors, this war showed the world the depravity of man, and the need to codify certain rights to protect people from each other.
But the UDHR was able to draw on preceding documents. The American Declaration of the Rights of Man was the first international catalogue of human rights, beating the UDHR by less than a year. (‘American’ refers to Central and South America, not the United States). In turn, the UDHR informed future human rights treaties, like the Arab Charter on Human Rights, passed in 2004.
What are the most important Human Rights documents?
If we measure the importance of a human rights document by its scope – how many rights it recognizes – and its support – how many nations commit to upholding it – there are three: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (both adopted in 1966). All three are United Nations documents, meaning almost all nations of the world have signed on to uphold them, and together they include all human rights. Collectively, the three documents are known as the International Bill of Human Rights.
But there are other documents that are also important – perhaps more so, at least in Europe. Specifically, the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights are legally binding documents that all EU member states must respect. Politically, they are more important than the UN documents because European courts take their enforcement much more seriously. For example, the EU’s Court of Justice hardly pays any attention to UN human rights treaties unless it has nowhere else to go for guidance. Instead it will most often look to the Charter of Fundamental Rights when formulating decisions.
What are the universal human rights? What types of human rights are there?
So, what are our basic human rights? Perhaps the most obvious, or most mentioned, human rights are the right to life, the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of thought. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists a total of 30 basic human rights. Unlike, for example, freedom of speech, the UDHR includes rights that could not have been conceived without underlying advancements, such as the right to democracy or the right to social security.
That said, we can categorize rights into certain types.
-Indivisibility: In recent history, western countries have tended to say that only civil and political rights were really rights, while socialist countries said that only economic and social rights are really rights. In reality, you need them all to live a life of dignity. If you can’t make ends meet, aren’t healthy or educated, then you’re not going to be able to use your other rights effectively. It could mean you’re too ill, too busy working, too poor, or not well enough informed to tell your leaders what you want from them, vote, buy a newspaper or take a court case. And vice-versa, if you don’t have a right to protest or free speech or access to courts or information or elections to vote in, you’re not in a position to choose politicians who will deliver on health care, education, fair pay etc.
-Inalienability: This just means that you can’t ‘trade’ your rights away by consent. You can’t say, ‘I give up my privacy for a free Facebook account’. Ideologically, it cuts into your dignity. Practically, it damages society because others will follow suit and then privacy isn’t really a right any more, which has consequences for democracy and individual sanity.
-Universality: This means that everyone gets the same rights by virtue of being human. Human rights are universal because they’re based on basic human needs and the way societies function. And universality is the cornerstone of human rights law, because it is the very promise of the concept itself: that everyone is born with these rights, no matter what.
Why are human rights important?
Human rights are important for two primary reasons: they protect us; and they allow us to build societies that are safe, prosperous and generally desirable to live in. Human rights give us the power to speak up and share our opinions with everyone else, especially those in power. They protect us from harm or undue burden, and they give us the power to participate, whether through protest or association or voting, to shape the world we live in.
They also give us individual freedom to do the things we want – to practice the religion of our choosing, to be a part of the groups we want to associate with, the freedom to receive an education. And, taken together, all of these things also mean that human rights allow us to hold governments to account. Not just in elections, but when a government commits atrocities against its own or foreign people, human rights laws provide the legal basis to hold them accountable.
Human rights issues: how equal is our world?
This is a tricky issue. In many ways, our world is not a very equal place, and this has little to do with human rights. Still, some people say there are inconsistencies – the United States promotes human rights around the world at the same time as it promotes capitalism, which, as currently constructed, creates a great deal of inequality.
But it is unfair to blame human rights for the world’s inequality. In fact, human rights give people the tools they need to demand more equality. The problem is that they’re not implemented properly. This is even true in the world’s strongest democracies. Having said that, one could point to progress on equality for minorities, as opposed to economic equality, that would not have been possible without human rights.
What is a human rights violation: examples
There are obvious examples of human rights violations that continue even today. The use of torture or other inhumane treatment is a common example. Or the jailing of political opponents simply for holding peaceful protests against their government. Or the persecution of religious or ethnic minorities.
But increasingly common human rights violations occur in fields created by our own advancement. For example, our right to privacy is systematically violated online, whether through data harvesting during election cycles or the daily use of microtargeted political advertising. Our right to privacy and our right to access information may be the most commonly violated human rights in western democracies, and this is because governments have been all too happy to defer to economic interests in cases where human rights violations are not considered overt or grave enough to force action.
How to protect human rights?
A good place to start is by introducing a different way of thinking. Instead of thinking only about how we complain when our rights aren’t implemented, we need to mainstream them into decision-making. How do we get civil servants and politicians thinking about implementing human rights? Most of it is common sense, actually. For the most part, they want to make laws that work well for everyone, and end up applying human rights standards almost by accident. If politicians want to make decisions that are good for everyone, then they’re already a long way along towards implementing human rights. Governments go a step further by creating human rights implementation plans and translating human rights standards into basic guidance for making decisions – for example, don’t forget to consult the people affected by your policy, or don’t forget to make information available to people who can’t read or see.
When things really go wrong, it is of course necessary that people are able to make a complaint. But doing so needs to be as easy as possible. Going to court can be a lengthy, costly process. So having easier access to quasi-judicial complaints systems could be an important step. Some countries have national human rights institutions that can more easily consider and judge human rights cases, which takes the burden off individuals. Non-governmental organizations, like human rights groups, also make it easier for people to defend their human rights.
Human rights information sources and further reading
The United Nations Universal Declaration of human rights
‘What are human rights?’ by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights