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.
Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law , general principles and other sources of international law. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.
Universal and inalienable
The principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. This principle, as first emphasized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, has been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, for example, noted that it is the duty of States to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems.
All States have ratified at least one, and 80% of States have ratified four or more, of the core human rights treaties, reflecting consent of States which creates legal obligations for them and giving concrete expression to universality. Some fundamental human rights norms enjoy universal protection by customary international law across all boundaries and civilizations.
Human rights are inalienable. They should not be taken away, except in specific situations and according to due process. For example, the right to liberty may be restricted if a person is found guilty of a crime by a court of law.
Interdependent and indivisible
All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education , or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination, are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others.
Equal and non-discriminatory
Non-discrimination is a cross-cutting principle in international human rights law. The principle is present in all the major human rights treaties and provides the central theme of some of international human rights conventions such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The principle applies to everyone in relation to all human rights and freedoms and it prohibits discrimination on the basis of a list of non-exhaustive categories such as sex, race, colour and so on. The principle of non-discrimination is complemented by the principle of equality, as stated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
Both Rights and Obligations
Human rights entail both rights and obligations. States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfill human rights. The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfill means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the individual level, while we are entitled our human rights, we should also respect the human rights of others.
Learning that develops the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights in young people with training, dissemination, and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights. Examines human rights issues without bias, from diverse perspectives through a variety of non-formal educational practices; informed critical thinking in multicultural and historical perspectives on struggles for justice and dignity.
We are all entitled to civil and political rights: freedom of expression and association, or equality before the law, and to social, economic, and cultural rights: suchas the right to a dignified life or to participate in all aspects of life. Young people who do not know about their human rights are vulnerable to having them abused and often lack the skills, language and conceptual framework to effectively advocate for them and contribute to the building of a free, just, and peaceful society.
Active youth participation
Democracy provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights, and a framework for analyzing and resolving differences. We encourage young people’s active participation in taking responsibility for respecting and defending human rights. The responsibilities of citizens in a democratic society are inseparable from the responsibility to promote human rights.
Human Rights as Inspiration and Empowerment
Human rights are both inspirational and practical. Human rights principles hold up the vision of a free, just, and peaceful world and set minimum standards for how individuals and institutions everywhere should treat people. Human rights also empower people with a framework for action when those minimum standards are not met, for people still have human rights even if the laws or those in power do not recognize or protect them.
We experience our human rights every day in the United States when we worship according to our belief, or choose not to worship at all; when we debate and criticize government policies; when we join a trade union; when we travel to other parts of the country or overseas. Although we usually take these actions for granted, people both here and in other countries do not enjoy all these liberties equally. Human rights violations also occur everyday in this country when a parent abuses a child, when a family is homeless, when a school provides inadequate education, when women are paid less than men, or when one person steals from another.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Rights for all members of the human family were first articulated in 1948 in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Following the horrific experiences of the Holocaust and World War II, and amid the grinding poverty of much of the world’s population, many people sought to create a document that would capture the hopes, aspirations, and protections to which every person in the world was entitled and ensure that the future of humankind would be different. See Part V, “Appendices,” for the complete text and a simplified version of the UDHR.
The 30 articles of the Declaration together form a comprehensive statement covering economic, social, cultural, political, and civil rights. The document is both universal (it applies to all people everywhere) and indivisible (all rights are equally important to the full realization of one’s humanity). A declaration, however, is not a treaty and lacks any enforcement provisions. Rather it is 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.
Over the past 50 years the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has acquired the status of customary international law because most states treat it as though it were law. However, governments have not applied this customary law equally. Socialist and communist countries of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia have emphasized social welfare rights, such as education, jobs, and health care, but often have limited the political rights of their citizens. The United States has focused on political and civil rights and has advocated strongly against regimes that torture, deny religious freedom, or persecute minorities. On the other hand, the US government rarely recognizes health care, homelessness, environmental pollution, and other social and economic concerns as human rights issues, especially within its own borders.
Across the USA, a movement is rising to challenge this narrow definition of human rights and to restore social, economic, and cultural rights to their rightful place on the human rights agenda. The right to eat is as fundamental as the right not to be tortured or jailed without charges!
Source: Adapted from Pam Costain, “Moving the Agenda Forward,” Connection to the Americas 14.8 (October 1997): 4.
Human Rights Organizations
Many organizations around the world dedicate their efforts to protecting human rights and ending human rights abuses. Major human rights organizations maintain extensive websites documenting violations and calling for remedial action, both at a governmental and grass-roots level. Public support and condemnation of abuses is important to their success, as human rights organizations are most effective when their calls for reform are backed by strong public advocacy. Below are some examples of such groups.
Globally, the champions of human rights have most often been citizens, not government officials. In particular, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have played a primary role in focusing the international community on human rights issues.
- Edna Mae Buniel