Human rights are entitlements that every person is born with, simply by being a human being. They cannot be lost, though they can be suspended or restricted in particular circumstances – for example, if someone is found guilty of a crime and has their freedom temporarily suspended. There are many different organisations that deal with human rights issues, including the United Nations. Various intergovernmental bodies and departments, such as the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) and the Economic and Social Council, investigate a variety of human rights questions.
Ultimately, the responsibility for upholding human rights lies with governments, but this does not mean that they always get it right. The UDHR and other treaties set out a series of fundamental rights that everyone is entitled to, regardless of who they are or where they live. These rights include the right to life, security and freedom from discrimination. It is these standards that international humanitarian law seeks to maintain even during conflict, and which distinguishes it from conventional war.
However, the reality is that violations of these fundamental rights are all too common. They occur in all societies, and can be linked to a variety of factors. In some cases, these can be rooted in the legacy of past violence and injustice; in others, they reflect the current political environment or broader patterns of discrimination and exclusion. They can also be influenced by the beliefs and attitudes of individuals, families or communities. Consequently, the challenge for people working on human rights is to find ways to promote them that are both consistent with established cultural values and effective in changing entrenched practices.
Violations of these fundamental rights are not limited to violent conflicts, but can also be a result of domestic or regional tensions, the economic pressures of globalisation, the rise of populist movements and other factors. These can include the exploitation of vulnerable groups, such as migrants or women; abuses of minority and indigenous populations; and discrimination based on religion or politics, amongst others. There are also specific human rights concerns – such as the elimination of slavery, female genital mutilation or the death penalty – that all states should aim to uphold in the interests of their citizens and the wider world community.
Views of human rights which emphasise the practical political roles they play are becoming increasingly popular, exemplified by the work of philosopher John Rawls, who developed his ‘political conception’. These views argue that it is only possible to understand the moral foundation of human rights and what it means to respect them if they are understood in terms of how they can benefit society as a whole. They are therefore a useful tool for people who wish to promote and uphold these fundamental rights. They also provide an important perspective for those seeking to reform a state’s policies, or to promote and defend human rights in a particular context. These tools can be particularly valuable in a period of transition or reconstruction, when human rights may need to be re-established or consolidated.