The Importance of Human Rights

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Human rights are a set of legal and moral principles that every person has the right to live by, such as: equality, dignity, freedom, fair treatment and security. They are fundamental to the human condition and therefore inalienable; no one can give them up, lose them or have them taken away from them. People need protection of their fundamental human rights when they are violated, which is why we need international law to ensure that governments respect and protect these rights.

The roots of human rights go back to ancient times when many cultures and governments promoted the idea that some basic requirements are essential for our human dignity. The teachings of Confucianism, for example, emphasised treating others as we would like to be treated, which has helped to form the basis for many principles of the Universal Declaration. Throughout history, the development of these ideas has been assisted by many major advances in social progress such as the abolition of slavery and the extension of education.

In the early seventeenth century philosopher John Locke developed the theory that each individual has certain “natural” rights, which can only be denied or infringed by a tyrant. This, along with the growing acceptance that a state’s legitimacy depends on the respect it gives to these natural rights, provided a foundation for later human rights thinking.

However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many countries tended to assert that they were free to do whatever they liked within their borders and that other countries and the international community had no right to interfere or even raise concerns when their rights were being violated. As a result, there were many major human rights violations.

Today, the concept of human rights is well established and supported by a large majority of nations and their populations. Many countries have national human rights institutions, and most have ratified the core human rights treaties that are overseen by bodies at the regional and international levels. Those who believe that their rights have been violated can make complaints directly to these oversight bodies.

Despite this widespread support, human rights violations remain a serious problem. The human rights norms that are upheld by the international system need to be championed by leaders, especially those in states that have a track record of violating human rights. This will help to re-establish the credibility of these norms, which are necessary for grounding attitudes of tolerance and mutual respect in civil society. They also need to help defuse exclusivist ideals that can fuel violent extremism. This will require an ongoing programme of education to debunk myths about the human rights system and to encourage a more inclusive approach to international relations.