Human 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. For many, the concept of "human rights" is based in religious principles, or else is otherwise directly related to them. However, because a formal concept of human rights has not been universally accepted, the term has some degree of variance between its use in different local jurisdictions —difference in both meaningful substance as well as in protocols for and styles of application.

Ultimately the most general meaning of the term is one which can only apply universally, and hence the term "human rights" is often itself an appeal to such trancendend principle, without basing such on existing legal concepts. The term "humanism" refers to the developing doctrine of such universally applicable values, and it is on the basic concept that human beings have innate rights, that more specific local legal concepts are often based.

Within particular societies, "human rights" refers to standards of behavior as accepted within their respective legal systems 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, the prohibition of genocide, 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).

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. The basis of this political tradition, perhaps best exemplified in the United States Constitution (1783) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1793) is the equality of opportunity between individuals (see theory of justice).

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.


United Nations Declarations of Human Rights

In 1948, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration limits the behavior of the state, which now has duties to the citizen (rights-duty duality). The main content of the Declaration was later made into two legally binding Covenants: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (opened for signature 1966, entered into force March 23, 1976) [1] ( and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (opened for signature 1966, entered into force January 3, 1976) [2] (

Other human rights conventions of note include: Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (entry into force: 1951) [3] (, Convention against Torture (entry into force: 1984) [4] (, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (entry into force: 1969) [5] (, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (entry into force: 1981) [6] (, Convention on the Rights of the Child (entry into force: 1989) [7] (, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (entry into force: 2002).

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 obligated 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 world's oldest recorded charter of human rights was engraved on the famous Cyrus Cylinder, written and confirmed by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great at around 538 BCE. Cyrus' charter, adopted by the first Persian Empire, is thought to be very advanced for the age, even comparing favorably with modern declarations of human rights, against which it is also contrasted as being much more spiritual.

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.

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, the answer is the state but 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


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.

External links


Human rights organizations

cs:Lidsk prva da:Menneskerettighederne de:Menschenrechte es:Derechos humanos fr:Droits de l'Homme id:Hak Asasi Manusia is:Mannrttindi it:Diritti umani he:זכויות האדם zh-min-nan:Jn-kan nl:Rechten van de Mens ja:人権 no:Menneskerettigheter pl:Prawa człowieka pt:Direitos humanos ru:Права человека sk:Ľudské práva sv:De mnskliga rttigheterna zh:人权


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