Human rights

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Civil rights
Collective rights
Human rights
Inalienable rights
Individual rights
Natural rights
Negative rights
Positive rights
Social rights

Human rights refers to the concept of human beings as having universal rights, or status, regardless of legal jurisdiction, and likewise other localizing factors, such as ethnicity and nationality.

The existence, validity and the content of human rights continue to be the subject to debate in philosophy and political science. However human rights are defined in international law & covenants, and further, in the domestic laws of many states. There is, however, a great deal of variance between how human rights norms are defined in these multiple contexts and how they are upheld in different local jurisdictions.

Within particular states, "human rights" refer to safeguards for the individual against arbitrary use of power by the government regarding 1) the well being of individuals, 2) the freedom and autonomy of individuals, and 3) the representation of the human interest in government. These rights commonly include the right to life, the right to an adequate standard of living, freedom from torture and other mistreatment, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, the right to self-determination, the right to education, and the right to participation in cultural and political life. These norms are based on the legal and political traditions of United Nations member states and are incorporated into international human rights instruments (see below).

With the exception of so called non-derogable human rights (the four most important are the right to life, the right to be free from slavery and the right to be free from retroactive application of penal laws), most human rights can be limited or even pushed aside during times of war.[1] Conduct in war is governed by International Humanitarian Law.


Human Rights in international law

The 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights resolution was adopted virtually unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly. While not legally binding, it urged member nations to promote a number of human, civil, economic and social rights, asserting these rights are part of the "foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world". The declaration limits the behavior of the state, which now has duties to the citizen (rights-duty duality). Efforts to create a legally binding form of the charter led to disagreements between various states over which rights were acceptable. Thus, two different covenents, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (opened for signature 1966, entered into force March 23, 1976) [2] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (opened for signature 1966, entered into force January 3, 1976) [3] were created which bind those states that ratify them to protect the rights listed in the respective covenant. Together these three documents constitute the International Bill of Human Rights. There have also been a number of other conventions regarding particular rights, including the

A modern interpretation of the original Declaration of Human Rights was made in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action[9], adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. The degree of unanimity over these conventions, in terms of how many and which countries have ratified them vary, as does the degree to which they are respected by various states. The UN has set up a number of bodies to monitor and study human rights, under the leadership of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR).

There are also many regional agreements and organisations governing human rights including the European Court of Human Rights, the only international court with jurisdiction to deal with cases brought by individuals (not states). the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Types of human rights

Human rights are typically divided into two categories: negative human rights (rights to be free from) and positive human rights (rights to), although other categorizations exist. Negative human rights, which follow mainly from the Anglo-American legal tradition, denote actions that a government should not take. These are codified in the United States Bill of Rights, the English Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and include freedoms of speech, religion and assembly.

Positive human rights follow mainly from the Rousseauian Continental European legal tradition, denote rights that the state is obliged to protect and provide. Examples of such rights include: the rights to education, to a livelihood, and to legal equality. Positive rights have been codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in many 20th-century constitutions.

A categorization offered by Karel Vasak is the three generations of human rights: first-generation civil and political rights (right to life and political participation), second-generation economic, social and cultural rights (right to subsistence) and third-generation solidarity rights (right to peace, right to clean environment). Out of these generations, the third generation is the most debated and lacks both legal and political recognition.

Some theorists discredit these divisions by claiming that rights are interconnected. Arguably, for example, basic education is necessary for the right to political participation.

History of human rights

The best-known histories of the human rights movement tend to begin with the ancient religions and societies and show the evolution of concepts and institutions of human rights across civilizations. The roots of the notion of Human Rights can be drawn as far back as the Ancients (the role of the individual in the state) but the idea of civil and political rights stems from liberal freedoms advocated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. The concepts of economic, social and cultural Rights can be traced back to Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right.

The origin of modern positive rights in international law may be traced to the creation of the International Labour Organization in 1919 as a Western response to the socialist ideology of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Philosophical basis of human rights

Numerous theoretical approaches have been advanced to explain how human rights become part of social expectations. The biological theory considers the comparative reproductive advantage of human social behavior based on empathy and altruism in the context of natural selection. Other theories hold that human rights codify moral behavior, which is a human, social product developed by a process of biological and social evolution (associated with Hume) or as a sociological pattern of rule setting (as in the sociological theory of law and the work of Weber). This approach includes the notion that individuals in a society accept rules from legitimate authority in exchange for security and economic advantage (as in Rawls).

Natural law theories base human rights on the “natural” moral order based on religious precepts, the assumed common understandings of justice, or the belief that moral behavior is a set of objectively valid prescriptions. In legend, literature, religion and political thought, justice (and eventually the concept of human rights) became socially constructed over time into complex webs of social interaction striving toward a social order in which human beings are treated fairly. Religious societies tend to try to justify human rights through religious arguments. For example, liberal movements within Islam have tried to use the story of Adam in the Qur'an to support human rights in a Muslim context.

Other theories are based on human agency, positing such constructs for agreement to rules on the utilitarian principles mediated by public reasoning. The social evolution model is based on human needs and struggle that incorporates an analysis of the norm-creating process. Values become norms through the constitutive process of authoritative decision-making. Such norms may take the form of law through a particular form of authoritative decision making of institutions associated with a legal system. It is the process of public reasoning through human rights norm-creating that progressively weeds out the culturally bound behaviors that are inconsistent with contemporary human rights. In this sense, culturally particular norms adapt to evolving human rights standards as defined in national constitutions and international human rights instruments.

Ultimately, the term "human rights" is often itself an appeal to a transcendent principle, without basing it on existing legal concepts. The term "humanism" refers to the developing doctrine of such universally applicable values.

Some authors argue that nationalism and realism weaken human rights, while individualism and cosmopolitanism strengthen them. This is argued by Klitou in his book "The Friends and Foes of Human Rights." Klitou also outlines the need for a "human identity" in order to empower human rights law.

Western view of human rights

In the Western political tradition, human rights are held to be "inalienable" and to belong to all humans. They are necessary for freedom and the maintenance of a "reasonable" quality of life. If a right is inalienable, that means it cannot be bestowed, granted, bartered, or sold away (e.g., one cannot sell oneself into slavery). Rights may also be non-derogable (not limited in times of national emergency); these often include the right to life, the right to be prosecuted only according to the laws that are in existence at the time of the offense, the right to be free from slavery, and the right to be free from torture.

Human rights controversies

There are a number of controversies regarding human rights including:

  1. Are human rights political, moral or legal entities (or all three at the same time)?
  2. Is there or should there be a hierarchy of human rights?
  3. Do human rights impede on state sovereignty? What if the state itself has ratified international conventions?
  4. Should human rights be used as a context for economic or military intervention? (Often leads to a worsening of the human rights situation in the target country)
  5. Questions of cultural relativism—e.g. "Political participation is not a part of African culture. Who are you to say that we should have political participation?" These arguments can also be made on religious basis: e.g., "In our religion marriages have always been arranged; why should we not continue this practice?" Some arguments claim that human rights policies are a form of cultural imperialism in which powerful countries dictate which rights they consider most important to less powerful countries. The increasing number of third-world states that are party to international human rights treaties has made these arguments weaker, but they have not disappeared altogether.
  6. Who should hold the moral duty to uphold rights? For civil and political rights, many would answer 'the state'. But in practice, it is frequently one's fellow citizens and civil society who need to shoulder this responsibility. It is not quite so clear who should be responsible for promoting economic, social and cultural rights (do we have a global duty?). This debate mirrors debates between communitarianism and cosmopolitanism.
  7. Which rights should be defined as fundamental human rights? Should all human rights be considered equal?

See also

Similar topics


Human rights organizations

Country-specific articles







  • Steiner, Henry J. & Alston, Philip. (1996). International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 019825437X
  • Donnelly, Jack. (2003). Universal Human Rights in Theory & Practice. 2nd ed. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.
  • Forsythe, David P. (2000). Human Rights in International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ignatieff, Michael. Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Shute, Stephen & Hurley, Susan (eds.). (1993). On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures. New York: BasicBooks.
  • Sunga, Lyal S. (1992) Individual Responsibility in International Law for Serious Human Rights Violations, Nijhoff Publishers.

External links


Human rights organizations

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