The Importance of Human Rights

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Human rights are not just a set of principles – they are an essential part of our moral and legal heritage. They are supported by almost every culture and civilised government on earth, as well as every major religion. They are the recognition that all humans have certain minimum requirements to live with dignity. This means that no one should be forced against their will to do anything; that women, children and the disabled deserve special protection; that freedom of speech and expression is a necessary foundation for the functioning of a democratic society; and that the right to life is a basic standard which cannot be denied.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw continuing progress in the protection of these rights, including abolition of slavery, a greater provision for education and the extension of political rights. However, it was only after World War II that the international community recognised that nations could do what they liked within their own borders but that they had a responsibility to other countries and the international community not to abuse their power or ignore human rights violations.

Today, countries have ratified human rights treaties which make it illegal for them to violate other people’s basic freedoms and dignity. Many have laws that protect people from discrimination, and some, like Canada, have a system of complaint that allows individuals to take human rights cases directly to a national court. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from around the world, has become the benchmark for these international commitments.

While these gains are real and substantial, the world still suffers from a number of serious human rights challenges. Millions of people struggle to survive on subsistence incomes, millions more are displaced by conflict or natural disasters, and millions still live under repressive rule by militias, armed groups or security forces. In many countries the press is not free, there are restrictions on religion, and dissenters can be punished, often permanently, for their views.

Despite the huge amounts of money spent on wars and development projects, there is much work to be done in order to make the world a better place. The key is to make more people aware of the existence and importance of human rights and to encourage them to demand that their governments respect and protect their fundamental freedoms. Civil society must also play a role, ensuring that businesses comply with anti-discrimination laws and that they promote equality, while the international community should monitor and call out the human rights violations of any nation that is not upholding its own obligations.