What are human rights?

"Rights inherent to all human beings”

“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.”

- Definition of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

Human rights are a set of norms, or standards of behavior, that are intended to protect us so that we are able to live full lives, free from fear and abuse. They are rights that belong to all people, just by virtue of being human.

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
- Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968). Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights activist and leader in the African-American civil rights movement.

Human Rights Timeline

Ancient times

Some of the earliest written records are in the texts of the world’s major religions – the Muslim Quran, the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, the Hindu Vedas. They are also to be found in the essays of the ancient Greek, Arab and Chinese philosophers and the laws of Rome.

17th Century Europe

The term “human rights” first became widely used.

1689 - 1791

The language of human rights in politics came into use later, in documents like 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), which all speak of human rights. But these were not universal laws. They were national laws, and reflected the politics, cultures and values of their nations at those times.

18th - 20th Century

Human rights as we know them today are universal and have their history in many struggles. There were the struggles of the abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries to put an end to slavery; the suffragettes’ struggles in the 19th and 20th centuries for women’s equality; the anti-colonial struggles in America in the 18th century and in Asia and Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.

World War 1

The savagery of the First World War (1914-1918), led to the creation of the League of Nations. The League tried to address human and minority rights and to regulate relationships between states to prevent war. However, the League collapsed, largely because of the failure of the major world powers to participate.

World War 2

The Second World War (1939-1945) included genocide and other severe human rights violations. When the war ended in 1945, the victorious Allied Powers led by the US, the UK and the former Soviet Union brought the international community together to create an organization that would promote peace and human rights. This was the United Nations (UN). 

Human rights and the UN Charter

The founding document of the United Nations is the UN Charter, which was signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. The UN Charter is a multilateral treaty, and is the highest authority in international law, which means that the UN Charter overrides any other treaties or agreements which UN member states sign. In 1945, 51 states signed the UN Charter.

Today, the UN has 193 member states – every country in the world except the Vatican City. All of these states are legally bound by the provisions of the UN Charter and recognize the UN Charter’s authority in international law.

Human rights for all

The UN Charter laid the foundation for the creation of international human rights for all:

  • Article 55 says that the UN should promote universal rights for all;
  • Article 56 says each member state should help the UN achieve these goals; and
  • Article 68 called on the UN’s Economic and Social Council to create a commission to promote human rights.

Troubled beginnings: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

In 1947, in line with Article 68 of the UN Charter, the UN formed the Commission on Human Rights. The first task of the Commission, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, was to reach agreement on a set of human rights that would be acceptable to all nations.

The main disagreements facing the Commission arose out of different positions taken up by the two big power groups, or “blocs” that dominated the UN. These were the Western bloc, led by the US and the UK; and the Soviet bloc, led by the Soviet Union. The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of the Cold War between capitalist countries, of which the biggest was the US, and socialist countries, represented by the Soviet Union. The two groups took fundamentally different ideological positions.

The three most controversial issues were (i) political and civil rights, (ii) social and economic rights and (iii) the question of enforcement – should human rights be legally binding in international law?

To prevent a deadlock, the Commission’s chairperson, Eleanor Roosevelt, proposed the idea of a “declaration” of general human rights principles rather than a treaty that would be binding in international law. Finally, agreement was reached, and on December 10, 1948 the General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

“All human rights for all”
- Slogan adopted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998.

The UDHR was the first international recognition that human rights and fundamental freedoms apply to everyone, everywhere. It is the global standard for human rights and forms the basis of over 60 international treaties, and has been translated into over 330 languages, making it the most translated document in the world. It has 30 articles that cover a wide range of political, social and economic rights, including the rights to life, liberty and security; to freedom from violence, torture and wrongful imprisonment, and the rights to freedom of movement and freedom of expression.

The UDHR laid the foundation for international human rights law, making it clear that every person has a “birthright” to fundamental human rights and is therefore not subject to the whims of the state. The 30 articles are expressed clearly and simply, and one of the main functions of the declaration is to raise awareness of human rights.

Many countries have included human rights based on the UDHR in their national constitutions and laws. However, the question of enforcement remains controversial, and one of the main criticisms of the UN, especially in relation to human rights, is that it lacks teeth.