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What are Human Rights?

Human rights are the rights a person has simply because he or she is a human being. They are basic standards without which people cannot live in dignity and which provide a common standard by which people should treat each other.

To violate someone’s human rights is to treat that person as though she or he were not a human being. To advocate human rights is to demand that the human dignity of all people be respected.

Human rights are held by all persons equally, universally, and forever.

Human rights are inalienable: you cannot lose these rights any more than you can cease being a human being.

Human rights are indivisible: you cannot be denied a right because it is “less important” or “non-essential.”

Human rights are interdependent: all human rights are part of a complementary framework. For example, your ability to participate in your government is directly affected by your right to express yourself, to get an education, and even to obtain the necessities of life.

In claiming these human rights, everyone also accepts the responsibility not to infringe on the rights of others and to support those whose rights are abused or denied.



Human Rights: A Brief History

While human rights have existed for as long as human beings have existed, they have not always been recognized. Following the extermination of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani (gypsies), homosexuals, and persons with disabilities during WWII (1939-1945), governments recognized the need for an independent institution which would work to prevent such an atrocity from occurring again. They established the United Nations (U.N.). The primary objective of the U.N. was to promote international peace. The founders of the U.N. recognized that protecting individuals rights to life, freedom, basic necessities, and nationality would be critical to fulfilling the organisation’s mission to maintain peace. A special committee was created and given the responsibility of creating a document that would define these rights.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights subsequently issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR provides a comprehensive framework and vision for how human dignity and freedom should be protected. It clearly outlines a set of standards and guidelines which, when upheld, provide a foundation for life, freedom, access to basic necessities, pursuit of happiness, and nationality.

The United States played a leading role in developing the UDHR. Eleanor Roosevelt was the U.S. delegate and leader of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Furthermore, the UDHR embodies the same principles that President Franklin D. Roosevelt described when he spoke about the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. As a result, the development of the human rights framework and the UDHR is an important part of U.S. history and culture.

The Human Rights Covenants

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a general declaration, which has been adopted at a global level. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights produced two additional treaties intended to act as legally binding documents to enforce the UDHR: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Together, these three documents are referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights. The ICCPR focuses on such issues as the right to life, freedom of speech, religion, and voting. The ICESCR focuses on such issues as food, education, health, and shelter. Both covenants trumpet the extension of rights to all persons and prohibit discrimination.

Subsequent Human Rights Documents

Multiple other human rights declarations and conventions (or treaties) have been created to protect human rights. Topical conventions deal with specific categories of abuses, such as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Additional conventions have been created to protect disenfranchised groups, including the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and the Members of their Families, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Conventions also exist that prohibit general discrimination based on race, occupation, and gender, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.

As of 1997, over 130 nations have ratified these covenants. The United States, however, has ratified only the ICCPR, and even that with many reservations, or formal exceptions, to its full compliance. (See From Concept to Convention: How Human Rights Law Evolves).

Once a government ratifies a human rights treaty or convention, it becomes law and needs to be upheld and protected. Unfortunately, when a county, population or person commits a human rights violation it is difficult to punish the violator under the human rights system. In the United States when an individual breaks the law there is a strong domestic legal system in place to take action against the offender. In international cases, while the International Court of Law does exist as an arbitrator and can take action, it is not always effective.

In Europe, the Americas, and Africa, regional documents for the protection and promotion of human rights extend the International Bill of Human Rights. For example, African states have created their own Charter of Human and People’s Rights (1981), and Muslim states have created the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990). The dramatic changes in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America since 1989 have powerfully demonstrated a surge in demand for respect of human rights. Popular movements in China, Korea, and other Asian nations reveal a similar commitment to these principles.

Precursors of 20th Century Human Rights Documents

Documents asserting individual rights, such the Magna Carta (1215), 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) are the written precursors to many of today’s human rights documents. Yet many of these documents, when originally translated into policy, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups. Nevertheless, oppressed people throughout the world have drawn on the principles these documents express to support revolutions that assert the right to self-determination.

Contemporary international human rights law and the establishment of the United Nations (UN) have important historical antecedents. Efforts in the 19th century to prohibit the slave trade and to limit the horrors of war are prime examples. In 1919, countries established the International Labor Organization (ILO)to oversee treatiesprotecting workers with respect to their rights, including their health and safety. Concern over the protection of certain minority groups was raised by the League of Nations at the end of the First World War. However, this organization for international peace and cooperation, created by the victorious European allies, never achieved its goals. The League floundered because the United States refused to join and because the League failed to prevent Japan’s invasion of China and Manchuria (1931) and Italy’s attack on Ethiopia (1935). It finally died with the onset of the Second World War (1939).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Member states of the United Nations pledged to promote respect for the human rights of all. To advance this goal, the UN established a Commission on Human Rights and charged it with the task of drafting a document spelling out the meaning of the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the Charter. The Commission, guided by Eleanor Roosevelt’s forceful leadership, captured the world’s attention.

On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)was adopted by the 56 members of the United Nations. The vote was unanimous, although eight nations chose to abstain.

The UDHR, commonly referred to as the international Magna Carta, extended the revolution in international law ushered in by the United Nations Charter – namely, that how a government treats its own citizens is now a matter of legitimate international concern, and not simply a domestic issue. It claims that all rights are interdependent and indivisible. Its Preamble eloquently asserts that:

[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The influence of the UDHR has been substantial. Its principles have been incorporated into the constitutions of most of the more than 185 nations now in the UN. Although a declaration is not a legally binding document, the Universal Declaration has achieved the status of customary international law because people regard it “as a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.”

The Role of Non Governmental Organizations

Human rights are, however, often most effective when citizens within a country hold their own government accountable. In fact, movements and institutions established to protect human rights, such as non-governmental organizations, are most powerful in holding perpetrators accountable, decreasing the quantity or severity of human rights violations and have played a cardinal role in focusing the international community on human rights issues.

In the United States, there is a strong history and foundation of human rights movements led by people who have sought to hold the government accountable for human rights violations. The women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s was a human rights movement to guarantee women the right to vote. The civil rights movement in the 1960s was a human rights movement to guarantee equal rights for African-Americans.

Each individual plays an important role in the development of human rights movements. Therefore it is crucial that human rights education takes place. People must know what their rights are in order to protect them.

NGO activities surrounding the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, drew unprecedented attention to serious violations of the human rights of women. NGOs such as Amnesty International, the Antislavery Society, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, Human Rights Watch, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, and Survivors International monitor the actions of governments and pressure them to act according to human rights principles.

Government officials who understand the human rights framework can also effect far reaching change for freedom. Many United States Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter have taken strong stands for human rights. In other countries leaders like Nelson Mandela and Vaclev Havel have brought about great changes under the banner of human rights.

Human rights is an idea whose time has come. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a call to freedom and justice for people throughout the world. Every day governments that violate the rights of their citizens are challenged and called to task. Every day human beings worldwide mobilize and confront injustice and inhumanity. Like drops of water falling on a rock, they wear down the forces of oppression and move the world closer to achieving the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Source: Adapted from David Shiman, Teaching Human Rights, (Denver: Center for Teaching International Relations Publications, U of Denver, 1993): 6-7.


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Founded in 1999, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) is a non-government human rights and social justice organisation. JFJ serves hundreds of Jamaicans each year by providing legal services in response to human rights violations, working on legislation and policy, campaigning for social justice causes, and conducting high-impact research that shape the national human rights agenda.

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