Human rights are basic freedoms – like the right to live, to choose where one lives, to love and to work – that people need in order to be happy and fulfilled. They are universal, inalienable and interdependent. They apply to all irrespective of their race, gender, language or religion, and they cannot be taken away from anyone. Human rights are not just a matter of opinion or politics: they are a moral and legal duty of all governments.
There are many ways of interpreting and understanding human rights. One view is that they are a way of identifying fundamental moral principles that all societies share, and thus providing the basis for international law and cooperation. This view aims to provide an objective foundation for human rights, so that they are not simply seen as a political issue to be argued over by competing nations or interests. It also aims to ensure that the international community acts to protect human rights where they are violated, and that governments take their responsibilities seriously.
Another approach to human rights is that they are norms of international law, created by legislative enactment, judicial decisions or custom that have been turned into treaty obligations at the global level. The idea behind this is that, when a government signs up to international agreements on human rights, it is not only obliged to respect those rights in its own territory but also has a responsibility to help other countries do the same.
A third view is that human rights are a set of standards that are universal and inalienable, regardless of whether they are recognised or not. This view suggests that the Universal Declaration is a statement of the most important of these standards, and that all states have a responsibility to uphold them, even if they do not agree with all the provisions. This is a very challenging view, and one that many people do not accept.
For some, the concept of human rights can seem like a very abstract and “otherworldly” concept, and it may feel impossible to make progress on these issues in the real world. However, policy change – whether at national or international level – often comes about as the result of a series of pressures from a range of sources. Young people starting out on human rights activism can make a big difference by applying the same approaches as seasoned activists.
It is important to remember that human rights are about more than just laws and institutions – they are about attitudes and values. To truly achieve human rights, everyone needs to know what they are and be able to identify them when they see them being violated. So, learn about your own rights, and talk to your friends and family about them. Support organisations that fight for your rights, and avoid consuming products that are made by slave labourers (or at least boycott those that do). This is the only way to make a difference!