Tech & Rights

#MeandMyRights: Get the Basics

You have certain human rights, but do you know what they are, or where the idea of human rights comes from? Here's the first in a series on understanding your rights.

by Israel Butler

The term 'human rights' refers to standards of treatment that guarantee a person the opportunity to live a fulfilled life. Broadly speaking, human rights protect four different aspects of our lives:

  • Home life. Human rights give us control over our personal space and freedom and protect us against interference by the authorities. For example, the right to privacy, the right to property, the right to liberty.
  • Public life. Human rights give us a say over how our society is run. For example, the right to vote, the right to free speech or the right to protest.
  • Work life. Human rights protect us against exploitation or abuse in the workplace. For example, the right to safe working conditions and paid holidays.
  • Quality of life. Human rights protect our basic material needs and give us the chance to help ourselves develop our abilities and make a contribution to society. For example, the right to health care, education or culture.

Human rights do not give a person the right to do whatever he or she wants. Each person’s rights have to be balanced against everyone else’s. For example, your right to free speech does not allow you to sing the Jackson 5's 'I want you back' at the top of your voice outside your ex’s house in the middle of the night. Even if you're convinced that your tribute to mini-Michael will make him or her realize how wrong they were to leave you – she or he has a right to privacy, and so do the neighbors. So just put it in a letter.

Where do human rights come from?

The ideas behind human rights are not new. Most of them can be found in old works of philosophy and in many religions. Simply put, human rights are an answer to the perennial questions that have bothered human beings since we started living in organized groups: How should human beings treat each other? How should societies organize themselves? What is fairness? How does one live a good life? Is there a cure for people who like Justin Bieber and One Direction?

The term ‘human rights’ has been widely accepted and used since the end of the Second World War. Governments were shocked by the horrific treatment inflicted on human beings during this period. They also believed that the war was made possible because some governments were able to violate human rights so easily. For example, by using hate speech against minorities, or by imprisoning people or censoring literature that opposed harmful propaganda. During a wave of post-war guilt, governments started creating international agreements that listed basic standards of protection, or 'human rights.'

The first international document with a general list of human rights is from the Americas (that's collectively North, Central and South America, not just the USA): the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, adopted in 1948. It was followed in the same year by United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Next, was the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950.

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