What Are Human Rights?

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human rights

Human rights are the freedoms and protections to which all members of the Homo sapiens species are entitled simply by virtue of their humanity. They are inalienable and indivisible. They are enshrined in international treaties and in the Constitutions of many states. They are the basis for international law and are a source of moral guidance. They are a source of inspiration for those who seek to govern wisely and well, and for those who want to live free from oppressive forces.

The concept of human rights emerged in response to the calamities of World War II. Its importance arose because the atrocities of those times galvanised worldwide opinion and made people realise that they had universal needs and common desires for fairness and justice. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a key step in identifying those needs and promoting the ideas which underlie it.

But the question of what counts as a human right is not easily answered. In principle, all humans have a number of fundamental human rights, but it is also true that the granting or infringement of those rights depends on the circumstances and situation in which they are being pursued. A fundamental question is whether or not a given set of rights is a useful basis for public policy and lawmaking.

Many different political movements would like to see their concerns categorized as human rights. This can be beneficial, but it is important that the scope of human rights does not become merely a cover for leftist programs which are unpopular in the wider world.

It is essential that the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in subsequent treaties be understood as being the basic minimum standards that all governments should meet. This allows the people of a country to hold its government to account and to demand improvements when those standards are not met. It also ensures that those standards cannot be discarded in favour of a particular social or economic model.

Some rights, such as the right to life, are intrinsically valuable and therefore inalienable. Other rights, such as the freedom to choose a career or partner, are less intrinsically valuable and may be subject to reasonable restrictions on the grounds of public safety or the interests of society.

Some philosophers and sociologists have argued that it is impossible to identify the basic human rights because different societies have different values and beliefs, and that the human rights that are considered most important in one society are not necessarily valued by any other. Others have resisted this claim by suggesting that certain principles are universally recognized, and that it is possible to derive a set of core human rights from these. Finally, some have argued that human rights can be defined in terms of the underlying determinants of health, and that these should be prioritised above other social and economic issues (see Health and Human Rights).