||Background Information on Human Rights >
Undestanding Human Rights
4.1 Understanding Human Rights
What are human rights?
Human rights are like armour: they protect you;
they are like rules, because they tell you how you can behave;
and they are like judges, because you can appeal to them. They
are abstract - like emotions; and like emotions, they belong to
everyone and they exist no matter what happens.
They are like nature because they can be violated;
and like the spirit because they cannot be destroyed. Like time,
they treat us all in the same way - rich and poor, old and young,
white and black, tall and short. They offer us respect, and they
charge us to treat others with respect. Like goodness, truth and
justice, we disagree about their definition, but we recognise
them when we see them.
Can you define human rights? How do you explain what they are?
Where do human rights come from?
rights are what no one can take away from you."
A right is a claim that we are justified
in making. I have a right to the goods in my shopping basket if
I have paid for them. Citizens have a right to elect a president,
if the constitution of their country guarantees it, and a child
has a right to be taken to the zoo, if her parents have promised
that they will take her. These are all things that people can
be entitled to expect, given the promises or guarantees that have
been undertaken by another party.
But human rights are claims with a slight difference, in that
they depend on no promises or guarantees by another party. Someone's
right to life is not dependent on someone else promising not to
kill him or her: their life may be, but their right to life is
not. Their right to life is dependent on only one thing: that
they are human.
An acceptance of human rights means accepting that everyone is
entitled to make the claim: I have these rights, no matter what
you say or do, because I am a human being, just like you. Human
rights are inherent to all human beings.
Why should that claim not need anything to back it up? What does
it rest on? And why should we believe it?
The claim is ultimately a moral claim, and rests on moral values.
What my right to life really means is that no one ought to take
my life away from me; it would be wrong to do so. Put like that,
the claim needs little backing up. Every reader is probably in
agreement with it because we all recognise, in our own cases,
that there are certain aspects of our life, our being, that ought
to be inviolable, and that no one else ought to be able to touch,
because they are essential to our being, who we are and what we
are; they are essential to our humanity and our human dignity.
Human rights simply extend this understanding on an individual
level to every human being on the planet. If I can make these
claims, then so can everyone else as well.
Why is it wrong to infringe someone else's right to life? Why
is it wrong to take their life away? Are these the same questions?
"What man wants is simply independent
choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may
There are thus two key values that lie at
the core of the idea of human rights. The first is human dignity
and the second is equality. Human rights can be understood as
defining those basic standards which are necessary for a life
of dignity; and their universality is derived from the fact that
in this respect, at least, all humans are equal. We should not,
and cannot, discriminate between them.
These two beliefs, or values, are really all that is required
to subscribe to the idea of human rights, and these beliefs are
hardly controversial. That is why the idea receives support from
every different culture in the world, every civilised government
and every major religion. It is recognised almost universally
that state power cannot be unlimited or arbitrary; it needs to
be limited at least to the extent that all individuals within
its jurisdiction can live with certain minimum requirements for
Many other values can be derived from these two fundamental
ones and can help to define more precisely how in practice people
and societies should co-exist. For example:
Freedom: because the human will is an
important part of human dignity. To be forced to do something
against our will demeans the human spirit.
Respect for others: because a lack of
respect for someone fails to appreciate their individuality and
Non-discrimination: because equality in
human dignity means we should not judge people on the basis of
non-relevant physical (or other) characteristics.
Tolerance: because intolerance indicates
a lack of respect for difference; and equality does not signify
identity or uniformity.
Justice: because people equal in their
humanity deserve fair treatment.
Responsibility: because respecting the
rights of others entails responsibility for one's actions.
Characteristics of human rights
"Values are invisible like the wind.
From the flutter of leaves you know there is wind. And you realize
values through the actions of people."
Philosophers may continue to argue about
the nature of human rights, but the international community has
established a set of key principles that states have agreed to
and have to abide by. According to these principles:
1. Human rights are inalienable. This
means that you can not lose them, because they are linked to the
very fact of human existence. In particular circumstances some
- though not all - may be suspended or restricted. For example,
if a someone is found guilty of a crime, his or her liberty can
be taken away; or in times of civil unrest, a government may impose
a curfew restricting freedom of movement.
2. They are indivisible, interdependent and
interrelated. This means that different human rights are intrinsically
connected and cannot be viewed in isolation from each other. The
enjoyment of one right depends on the enjoyment of many other
rights and no one right is more important than the rest.
3. They are universal, which means that
they apply equally to all people everywhere in the world, and
with no time limit. Every individual is entitled to enjoy his
or her human rights without distinction of race, colour, sex,
language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social
origin, birth or other status.
We should note that the universality of human rights does not
in any way threaten the rich diversity of individuals or of different
cultures. Diversity can still exist in a world where everyone
is equal, and equally deserving of respect.
A historical outline
three things is the world sustained: by truth, by judgement and
The idea that people have inherent rights
has its roots in many cultures and ancient traditions. We can
see from numerous examples of revered leaders and influential
codes of practice that the values embodied in human rights are
neither a 'Western invention' nor a twentieth-century invention.
- The Code of Hammurabi in Babylonia (Iraq, c 2000 B.C.) was
the first written legal code, established by the king of Babylon.
It vowed to 'make justice reign in the kingdom, to destroy the
wicked and violent, to prevent the strong from oppressing the
weak, ... to enlighten the country and promote the good of the
- A Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt (c 2000 BC) was quoted as giving
instructions to subordinates that 'When a petitioner arrives
from Upper or Lower Egypt, ... make sure that all is done according
to the law, that custom is observed and the right of each man
- The Charter of Cyrus (Iran, c 570 BC) was drawn up by the
king of Persia for the people of his kingdom, and recognised
rights to liberty, security, freedom of movement and some social
and economic rights.
Which figures in your country's history have championed or fought
for human rights values?
The English Magna Carta and Bill of Rights
In 1215, English nobles and members of the clergy rallied against
King John I's abuse of power, and made the King agree to abide
by the law by drawing up a Great Charter of liberties (Magna Carta).
Although the King did not respect it, the Magna Carta became a
widely cited document in defence of liberties. It enumerates a
series of rights, such as the right of all free citizens to own
and inherit property and to be free from excessive taxes. It establishes
principles of due process and equality before the law. Following
King James II's abuse of the law, his subjects overthrew him in
1688. In 1689, Parliament passed a bill declaring that it would
no longer tolerate royal interference in its affairs. This bill,
known as the Bill of Rights, forbade the monarch to suspend the
law without Parliament's consent, specified free elections for
members of Parliament and declared that freedom of speech in Parliament
was not to be questioned, in the courts or elsewhere.
The birth of natural rights
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, a
number of philosophers proposed the concept of "natural rights".
These were rights that belonged to a person because he or she
was a human being, rather than because, for example, a citizen
of a particular country or a member of a particular religion or
ethnic group. The idea that these natural rights should entitle
people to certain legal rights became more widely accepted and
began to be reflected in the constitutions of some countries.
The French Declaration on the Rights of Man
and the Citizen (1789)
being... by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can
be ... subjected to the political power of another, without his
In 1789, the French overthrew their monarchy
and established the first French Republic. The Declaration came
out of the revolution and was written by representatives of the
clergy, nobility and commoners, who wrote it to embody the thoughts
of Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, the Encyclopedists
and Rousseau. The Declaration attacked the political and legal
system of the monarchy and defined the natural rights of man as
"liberty, property, security and the right to resist oppression".
It replaced the system of aristocratic privileges that had existed
under the monarchy with the principle of equality before the law.
The United States Declaration of Independence,
Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791)
In 1776, most of the British colonies in North America proclaimed
their independence from the British Empire in the United States
Declaration of Independence. This was largely based on the "natural
right" theories of Locke and Montesquieu, and inspired the
French revolution and rebellions against Spanish rule in South
America. Later on, the United States Constitution was amended,
and the government was centralised but with powers limited enough
to guarantee individual liberty. Twenty amendments to the constitution
form the American Bill of Rights.
Early international agreements
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of human
rights issues came to the fore and began to be questioned at an
international level, beginning with such issues as slavery, serfdom,
brutal working conditions and child labour. It was at around this
time that the first international treaties concerning human rights
- Slavery became illegal in England and France around the turn
of the nineteenth century and, in 1814, the British and French
governments signed the Treaty of Paris, with the aim of co-operating
in suppressing the traffic in slaves. At the Brussels Conference
of 1890, an anti-slavery Act was signed, which was later ratified
by eighteen states.
- The first Geneva Conventions (1864 and 1929) marked another
field of early co-operation among nations in setting out the
elaboration of the rules of war. In particular, the Conventions
laid down standards for caring for sick and wounded soldiers.
Why do you think that the need for international agreements arose,
rather than individual countries simply drawing up their own standards?
The twentieth century
"And fight in the way of God with
those who fight with you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors."
The idea of protecting the rights of human
beings against the governing powers began to receive ever wider
acceptance. The importance of codifying these rights in written
form had already been recognised by some individual states and,
in this way, the documents described above became the precursors
to many of today's human rights treaties. However, it was the
events of World War II that really propelled human rights onto
the international stage.
The International League of Nations was an intergovernmental
organisation created after the First World War, which tried to
protect basic human rights standards but it was only after the
terrible atrocities committed in the Second World War, and largely
as a result of them, that a body of international law emerged.
These events made it both possible and necessary for an international
consensus to emerge on the need for international regulation to
protect and codify human rights.
The Charter of the United Nations, signed on 26 June 1945, reflected
this belief. The Charter states that the fundamental objective
of the United Nations is "to save succeeding generations
from the scourge of war" and "to reaffirm faith in fundamental
human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and
in the equal rights of men and women".
will continue to be waged for as long as mankind fails to notice
that human nature is identical, no matter where on earth we find
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(UDHR) was drawn up by the Commission on Human Rights, one of
the organs of the United Nations, and was adopted by the General
Assembly on the 10 December 1948. Since then, a series of key
instruments to safeguard its principles have also been drawn up
and agreed by the international community. More information on
some of these international treaties can be found below in this
chapter, including information on the European Convention for
Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Human rights around the
Several regions of the world have established their own systems
for protecting human rights, which exist alongside that of the
UN. To date, there are regional institutions in Europe, the Americas,
Africa and the Arab states, but not yet in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, most countries in this part of the world have also ratified
the major UN treaties and conventions - thereby signifying their
agreement with the general principles, and expressing themselves
subject to international human rights law.
The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights came into force
in October 1985 and has been ratified by more than 40 states.
The Charter is interesting for a number of differences in emphasis
between the treaties that have been adopted in other parts of
- Unlike the European or American Conventions, the African Charter
covers social, economic and cultural rights as well as civil
and political rights.
- The African Charter goes beyond individual rights, and also
provides for collective rights of peoples.
- The Charter also recognises that individuals have duties
as well as rights, and even lists specific duties that the individual
has towards his or her family, society, the State and the international
Why do you think that duties are listed in a charter on human
rights? Do you think they should be listed in all human rights
the significance of national and regional particularities and
various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be
borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political,
economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human
rights and fundamental freedoms".
The Vienna Declaration (1993)
In the Arab world, there currently exists
a regional Commission on Human Rights, with only limited powers.
However, they have also approved an Arab Charter on Human Rights
that will establish a regional system. This document, like the
African Charter, includes social-economic rights as well as civil-political
rights, and also a list of 'Collective Rights of the Arab People'.
There have been calls for such a system to be set up in the
Asian-Pacific region, but no formal agreements have yet been adopted.
A meeting of NGOs in the region in 1993 resulted in the Bangkok
NGO Declaration on Human Rights, which stated:
"We can learn from different cultures from a pluralistic
perspective. ... Universal human rights are rooted in many cultures.
We affirm the basis of universality of human rights which afford
protection to all of humanity. ... While advocating cultural pluralism,
those cultural practices which derogate from universally accepted
human rights, including women's rights, must not be tolerated.
As human rights are of universal concern and are universal in
value, the advocacy of human rights cannot be considered to be
an encroachment upon national sovereignty".
How can we use our rights?
"We are all, and me especially, responsible
for everything and for everyone."
Human rights exist for us. So how can we
make use of them? It is clear that their mere existence is not
enough to put an end to human rights violations, since we all
know that these are committed every day, in every part of the
globe. So can they really make a difference? How can we use them?
Do you know which rights you have?
A number of sections in this manual look at various aspects
of this problem.
Recognising your rights
In the next section we look at the different types of rights
that are protected under international law. If we know which areas
of human existence are relevant to human rights law and we are
aware of the obligations of governments under this body of law,
then we can begin to apply pressure in different ways. That section
illustrates that almost every area of injustice is relevant to
human rights: from small-scale poverty, through environmental
damage, health, working conditions, political repression, voting
rights, genetic engineering, minority issues, terrorism, genocide
... and beyond. And the number of issues is increasing even today.
Some of the issues concerning the application of human rights
legislation are addressed directly in the section "Questions
and Answers". These provide brief responses to some of the
more common questions often asked about human rights.
In addition, every section of Chapter 5 deals in more detail
with the manual's themes. If you are concerned to find out how
a particular issue - for example, the right to health, to education,
or fair working conditions - can be better protected, you will
find it helpful to look at the background information relevant
to that issue.
Using legal mechanisms
We shall look at the legal mechanisms that exist for protecting
the different areas of people's interests. In Europe, we are particularly
fortunate, at least as far as some rights are concerned, in having
a permanent court to deal with complaints about violations - the
European Court of Human Rights. Even where complaints do not fall
under the jurisdiction of the European Court, we shall see that
there are other mechanisms of holding states accountable for their
actions and forcing them to comply with their obligations under
human rights law. It helps that the law is there, even if there
are not always legal means of enforcing compliance by states.
Lobbying, campaigning and activism
Have you ever been involved in any campaigning or human rights
regard the death penalty as a savage and immoral institution that
undermines the moral and legal foundations of a society. I am
convinced ... that savagery begets only savagery."
One important role in exerting pressure on
states is played by associations, non-governmental organisations,
charities, and other civic initiative groups. This forms the subject
matter of the section on activism and the role of NGO's.The role
of such associations is particularly relevant to the man - and
woman - on the street, not only because such associations frequently
take up individual cases, but also because they provide a means
for the ordinary person to become involved in the protection of
human rights. After all, such associations are made up of ordinary
people! We shall also look at how they act to improve human rights
and at some examples of successful action.
soul is a hostage to its own actions."
Chapter 3, Taking Action, brings these types
of actions down to an everyday level, and offers a number of examples
of action in which you could become involved. Youth groups have
enormous potential for putting pressure on states or international
bodies and ensuring that cases of human rights violation are brought
to the public eye. The examples in this section should provide
you with concrete measures that could be undertaken by your group
and will also give a greater insight into the way that non-governmental
organisations work at an everyday level.
Dilemmas and misuses of human
What should we do when protecting the rights of one group of
people involves restricting those of others? Sometimes human rights
are used as an excuse to carry out actions that are themselves
of questionable morality. People, even governments, may claim
to be acting to protect human rights, but in fact the actions
they employ themselves violate fundamental rights.
It is not always easy to judge such cases. Consider the following
Conflicts of rights
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th
2001 in the United States of America, many governments are restricting
certain basic liberties in order to combat the threat of terrorism.
In the UK, there is a new law withdrawing from Article 5 of the
European Convention on Human Rights, the article that protects
people from arbitrary detention and imprisonment. This makes it
possible for the government to lock people up without any charge
or trial, on the basis of mere suspicion.
Is it permissible to restrict the rights of minorities in the
name of national security? If so, should there be any limits?
The United States Supreme Court has declared that demonstrations
by nazi groups in Jewish suburbs are legal forms of freedom of
expression. Should such groups in fact be prevented from promoting
a doctrine that would lead to the destruction of a whole people?
Or is that an unacceptable restriction of the right to freedom
Arranged marriages are common practice in many cultures, where
a girl is obliged to marry a man who has been chosen by her family,
often at a very young age. Should such a practice be banned in
order to protect the young girls? Or would that be failing to
respect a different cultural tradition?
time justice dies, it is as if it had never existed."
Other examples can be found in the continued
practice of female circumcision in many countries, or the "honour
killings" of girls and women. Thousands of people suffer
the consequences of such practices and most people would certainly
regard them as a serious violation of rights. Is the acceptance
of female circumcision an inter-cultural difference that should
Should cultural values ever be able to 'override' the universality
of human rights?
In the name of a good cause
1995, a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation compared 1995 child
and infant mortality levels in Baghdad to 1989 levels. On the
basis of the data they collected, two team members published a
letter, which concluded that some 567,000 Iraqi children had died
as a result of the sanctions to that date. In April, 1998 Unicef
claimed that some 90,000 children were dying annually as a result
of the sanctions
Sanctions are sometimes used by the international
community to penalise regimes that are considered to be systematically
violating human rights. Sanctions forbid trade with the violator
country, in order to put pressure on the government to modify
their actions. Some countries have been completely isolated by
the international community: South Africa was isolated for years
because of its system of apartheid, and today Cuba and Iraq are
unable to trade with most of the world. There is no doubt that
the effects of such sanctions are felt by normal people, but they
are felt particularly by the most vulnerable sectors of society.
Is this an acceptable means of putting an end to human rights
violations by another government?
Although not officially sanctioned by the UN, the Nato-led bombings
in Kosovo were justified by many in terms of protecting the ethnic
Albanians and bringing a perpetrator of genocide to justice. The
military action led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of
refugees, to an estimated 500 directly caused civilian casualties
and to the devastation of Serbian infrastructure. It also led
to the capture of President Milosevic and his trial before an
international tribunal. Similar action has been undertaken in
Afghanistan in order to destroy the terrorist network thought
to be responsible for the 11th September 2001 events.
Can such actions be justified in terms of their end results if
they cause large numbers of casualties?
Can the defence of human rights be used to justify a military
In April 2001, a resolution of the United Nations Commission
on Human Rights rejected the notion that fighting terrorism could
ever justify sacrificing human rights protections. Resolution
2001/24 condemned terrorist attacks related to the Chechnya conflict
and breaches of humanitarian law perpetrated by Chechen forces,
as well as certain methods often used by Russian federal forces
in Chechnya. It called for a national commission of inquiry into
The questions raised in the previous section do not all have
clear-cut answers: they remain the subject of fierce debate, even
today. Such debates are, to a certain extent, important. They
are an indication both of the pluralistic approach that is fundamental
to the notion of human rights and of the fact that human rights
are not a science, not a fixed 'ideology', but are a developing
area of moral and legal thought. We should not always expect black
and white answers - partly because the issues are complex, but
also because there are no experts on the subject who are qualified
to have the final word and settle all arguments.
However, that does not mean that there are no answers and no
areas of agreement. There are many, and they increase almost daily.
The issue of slavery is one which used to be debated, but where
tolerance is no longer regarded as acceptable: the right to be
free from slavery is now universally accepted as a fundamental
human right. Female circumcision, although defended under some
cultures, is broadly condemned as a violation of human rights.
And the death penalty is, arguably, becoming such an issue - at
least in Europe, where members of the Council of Europe are required
to move towards abolition.
So we should be confident that many of these questions will
also reach their resolution. In the meantime, we can help the
debate and make our own judgements on the more controversial issues
by referring back to the two fundamental values: equality and
human dignity. If any action treats any individual as lacking
in human dignity, then it violates the spirit of human rights.