Beginner’s Guide to Human Rights

What are human rights?

Nations grant certain rights to their citizens through a constitution or other laws. Many of these rights are granted to everyone, by virtue of being a citizen of that country. After the Second World War, with the creation of the United Nations, the concept of ‘human rights’ began to be discussed. Similarly, human rights belong to all peoples of the world, simply by virtue of being human, regardless of race, sex, language, or religion.

The first mention of this concept was in the UN Charter, which stresses the importance of promoting and respecting human rights, but did not define them. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), consisting of 30 articles, was drafted and ratified in the UN. The intent was to define the principles that states should support in regards to the rights of their people. The Declaration, though not legally binding or enforceable, was an important step in establishing all international human rights law to follow. The document was written in intentionally simple language to be best understood by as many as possible, rather than just those involved in international relations and law. The ideas were meant to be universally understood and eventually applied. Currently, it has been translated into 379 languages.

Initially, the declaration was adopted by 48 out of 56 member states, with the Soviet Bloc nations, Yugoslavia, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia abstaining. In 1966, as moves where made to draft binding agreements to better enforce human rights, the Cold War created divisions within the UN. Unable to agree on the kinds of rights to be included, committees drafted two different agreements. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) focuses primarily on ‘negative rights’, that is, rights where states are prevented from taking action which would violate those rights, such as preventing a person’s right to free speech. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) focuses instead on ‘positive rights’, where the state has an obligation to provide services and funds which better the lives of the citizens, such as right to quality health care. To this day, there are still disagreements about which set of rights should take precedent, if either, and neither Covenant has been ratified by all member states.

Together, the two Covenants, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, make up the International Bill of Rights. A number of other human rights documents, focusing on specific issues, have been adopted by many member states. These include the conventions on the rights of women, children, migrant workers, and persons with disabilities, as well as those against racial discrimination and torture.

Are human rights universal?

Although many proponents of human rights would like to see these rights adopted across the world, the reality is more complex. Beyond conflicts between the two main Covenants, the United Nations attempts to strike a balance between prompting these rights and respecting the sovereignty of each nation. What this is means is that no state can be forced to adopt any international human rights agreement. While all members states have effectively accepted the importance of human rights generally, there is no international consensus on what these rights should be. Additionally, states have the right to include their reservations to any ratified agreements, provided they do not conflict with the agreement generally.

Beyond the United Nations, there are also several regional organizations with their own agreements and enforcement mechanisms. These include organizations and declarations based in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and Africa. The European Court of Human Rights in generally considered to be the most advanced of the regional bodies.

How are human rights enforced?

The question of enforcement is a difficult problem for human rights advocates. In theory, no member state of the United Nations should have the power to influence another. For this reason, the development of human rights law has been a relatively slow process, building upon gradual successes rather than attempting to enforce everything. There are, however, political pressures that states can put on one another to adhere to their obligations under international law. For example, when considering trade deals, negotiating states may require a greater enforcement for the rights of workers.

Regional bodies can also put a great deal of pressure on their members. All members of the European Union are required to accept the European Convention on Human Rights as a prerequisite for admittance. Although this has not stopped abuses from happening, it has granted much greater influence to the European Court of Human Rights, effecting some policy changes.

What are the challenges for human rights today?

Despite the difficulties, human rights have been progressing since the adoption of the Universal Declaration. They require pressure from states, NGO’s, and individuals to keep the progress moving forward. Even so, there are still challenges. Many debate whether there should be a hierarchy of rights. Between the two human rights Covenants, there are arguments about the relative importance of positive and negative rights. While some argue that the right to vote is meaningless without adequate food, education, and health care, others feel that without political representation and free expression, there is no way to hold governments accountable for these or other obligations. Still others reject the argument altogether, insisting that both are needed. However, since the gaining of rights is a gradual process, it becomes necessary to place some over others in order to strengthen them effectively.

Human rights may also be seen as conflicting with one another. The most common example would be in terms of women’s rights and cultural rights. Some feel that greater respect for cultural traditions and practices can limit the rights of women in those cultures due to the restrictions that are placed on them or the customs of resolving conflicts within families, rather than the states. Other cultures, particularly outside of the West, often feel that attempts to universalize these rights are threatening to their customs and history, and in fact imposing their will from more powerful nations.

Of particular relevance today is the effect of the War on Terrorism on human rights. The justifications for global security has seen limits placed on civil and human rights, particularly for detainees and political dissidents. Through international law efforts, the ban on torture is now considered to be an international norm, applying to all nations. However, we have seen, particularly in the last decade, debates over the definitions of torture and whether this ban is correct, allowing greater violations to take place.

Although the trend is alarming for human rights activists, there are still precedents which allow organizations and individuals to highlight these abuses. Advocates for Human Dignity, along with many other international NGO’s such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is committed to seeing the greatest protections of these rights as possible, with respect and dignity for people of all nations.

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