What are human rights?
- Human rights are held by all persons equally, universally and forever.
- Human rights are universal: they are always the same for all human beings everywhere in the world. You do not have human rights because you are a citizen of any country but because you are a member of the human family. This means children have human rights as well as adults.
- Human rights are inalienable: you cannot lose these rights any more than you can cease to be a human being.
- Human rights are indivisible: no-one can take away a right because it is ‘less important’ or ‘non-essential’.
- Human rights are interdependent: together human rights form a complementary framework. For example, your ability to participate in local decision making is directly affected by your right to express yourself, to associate with others, to get an education and even to obtain the necessities of life.
- Human rights reflect basic human needs. They establish basic standards without which people cannot live in dignity. To violate someone’s human rights is to treat that person as though he or she were not a human being. To advocate human rights is to demand that the human dignity of all people be respected.
- In claiming these human rights, everyone also accepts responsibilities: to respect the rights of others and to protect and support people whose rights are abused or denied. Meeting these responsibilities means claiming solidarity with all other human beings.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Two major influences in the mid-twentieth century propelled human rights onto the global arena and the awareness of people around the world. The first was struggles of colonial people to assert their independence from foreign powers, claiming their human equality and right to self-determination. The second catalyst was the Second World War. The extermination by Nazi Germany of over six million Jews, Roma people, homosexuals and persons with disabilities horrified the world. Calls came from across the globe for human rights standards to bolster international peace and protect citizens from abuses by governments. These voices played a critical role in the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 and are echoed in its founding document, the UN Charter. Rights for all members of the human family were first articulated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one of the first initiatives of the newly established United Nations. Its thirty articles together form a comprehensive statement covering economic, social, cultural, political, and civil rights. The Declaration is both universal (it applies to all people everywhere) and indivisible (all rights are equally important to the full realization of one’s humanity) for both the complete text and a child-friendly version of the UDHR.
The human rights framework
Although the Universal Declaration has achieved the status of customary international law in its more than sixty years, as a declaration it is only a statement of intent, a set of principles to which United Nations member states commit themselves in an effort to provide all people a life of human dignity. For the rights defined in a declaration to have full legal force, they must be written into documents called conventions (also referred to as treaties or covenants), which set international norms and standards. Immediately after the Universal Declaration was adopted, work began to codify the rights it contained into a legally binding convention. For political and procedural reasons, these rights were divided between two separate covenants, each addressing different categories of rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) articulates the specific, liberty-oriented rights that a state may not take from its citizens, such as freedom of expression and freedom of movement. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) addresses those articles in the UDHR that define an individual’s rights to self-determinations as well as basic necessities, such as food, housing and health care, which a state should provide for its citizens, in so far as it is able. The UN General Assembly adopted both covenants in 1966. See APPENDICES, P. 289, for a list of countries that have ratified the Covenants. Since its adoption in 1948, the Universal Declaration has served as the foundation for the twenty major human rights conventions. Together these constitute the human rights framework, the evolving body of these international documents that define human rights and establish mechanisms to promote and protect them.