The concept of human rights has become one of the cornerstones of international law. It is a body of international legal principles that defines a set of minimum standards of human dignity and equality, and states’ responsibilities to realise them. It is a principle that is embraced by nearly all nations and civilised governments and by the major religions.
The underlying assumption is that all people have certain basic needs, and that these need to be met for humans to live with the respect and dignity they deserve. This is a view that has been shaped by the experiences of two world wars, and by the suffering that was caused by their terrible atrocities. This understanding has led to a large body of international law, and to the development of institutions such as the United Nations that promote and protect human rights globally.
Human rights are indivisible: they include all the civil, political, economic, social and cultural freedoms that are inherent to the dignity of all people. This is why they are referred to as universal and inalienable: people cannot voluntarily give them up, and they can no more be taken away from them than they can their citizenship or the air they breathe. In particular circumstances, it is possible to derogate from certain rights – for example to take away freedom of movement in times of national emergency – but even this can be justified by reference to the fact that fundamental freedoms are indivisible.
Although the notion of human rights has been shaped by a number of different events, it is most clearly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It was written in 1946 by representatives from a wide range of countries and their various religious, political and cultural contexts. This inclusive approach, combined with the principles of universality and inalienability that define the concept, has given it a remarkably broad base of support.
Another important factor in the widespread acceptance of human rights has been their practical utility. They are a very reliable way of finding out what demands can be justifiably made by individuals of each other and of their governments, and of providing a framework for the resolution of conflicts between them. When people are polled in many countries, big majorities of the population give affirmative answers when asked whether they believe in human rights.
Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that, whatever their merits as practical tools, there are limits to their usefulness. For most of the history of human rights, they have been a source of conflict, as they have clashed with other traditions of morality and politics. For this reason, there is a very real risk that human rights could eventually run into the same sorts of resistance that have been encountered by other ideas about how to live together in peace and prosperity. This is a danger that must be addressed by identifying and articulating the wider implications of the idea of human rights.