The Concept of Human Rights

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The term human rights is widely used to refer to a number of international treaties, conventions and agreements that promote and protect civil and political, economic, social and cultural freedoms. Some of these rights, such as the right to equality, are based on fundamental principles such as non-discrimination and the equal protection of the law. Others, such as the right to life, are based on a specific set of legal obligations that states have towards their citizens.

Some theorists have developed views of human rights that seek to explain their nature and justification. These are known as “political conceptions” and include the work of John Rawls and Charles Beitz.

One of the oldest Western philosophies of human rights is natural law, which asserts that every person has certain inalienable rights and that government should respect those rights. This view was formulated by John Locke and was the basis for the early constitutions of some countries.

Other theorists, such as Thomas Hobbes, have argued that people must submit to their ruler’s authority in exchange for being given some security of those basic rights. The concept of rights has been further elaborated by theologians, philosophers and others. For example, John Locke argued that people have certain natural rights that derive from their own nature and that the legitimacy of government rested on its respect for these natural rights. This reformulated idea of human rights became known as natural law theory and was reflected in the constitutions of some countries.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue that all human rights are universal, since many cultures have practices that are inconsistent with human rights. For example, slavery is still common in some parts of the world and female genital mutilation is defended by some as part of their culture, yet both are considered violations of women’s rights and have been outlawed. This type of argument is often called cultural relativism.

The human rights treaties have created international standards for civil and political rights, economic and social rights and culture. These standards are enforceable in the courts of the world’s states, and they are generally considered to be a binding international contract. However, these treaties do not provide any guarantee that all human rights are respected in practice. Ultimately, it is up to the individual countries, with support from international organizations such as the United Nations, to enforce their commitment to human rights in practice.

There are some important differences between the various human rights treaties and their provisions. The most significant difference is the scope of the protections they offer. For example, whereas the UDHR guarantees civil and political rights to all persons without distinction of race, religion, colour, language, sex, sexual orientation or disability, the other treaties focus on specific groups such as women or children. They also include a wide range of specific rights such as the right to education, the right to housing and the right to work. The enjoyment of most rights is indivisible, and the denial of one right invariably impedes the enjoyment of other rights.