What Are Human Rights?

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A human right is a principle or set of rights that define the fundamental dignity and worth of every person. It is a concept that is universal, inalienable and indivisible; it is interrelated and all rights are interdependent; and it encompasses civil and political, economic, social and cultural rights. People who promote human rights argue that all persons are born with the same inherent dignity and are equal as human beings, regardless of their gender, race, religion, ethnic origin, age, language, education, work, disability, property or birth status. Human rights protect people against discrimination based on those criteria.

In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is an international treaty enshrining 30 fundamental freedoms and rights for all members of the human family, regardless of where they live. The UDHR grew out of the experience of World War II, the Holocaust and the grinding poverty of many parts of the world. It was drafted by representatives of different countries, reflecting their diverse religious, political and cultural contexts. It replaced earlier international agreements that did not address the fundamental causes of human suffering or offered only limited protections to individual victims.

One important reason why human rights have become more widely accepted is that they are rooted in the natural law, which states that every person has certain basic moral and legal entitlements. Another reason is that enshrining them in legal and international treaties makes it much harder for governments to deny them. In addition, the fact that human rights are rooted in the natural law means that they can be used to hold governments accountable for their actions and to encourage a culture of respect and tolerance.

However, if human rights are to be more than just an instrument for holding governments accountable and encouraging a culture of respect they must also have a core philosophical value. For this reason, some people think that human rights are rooted in religious and ethical traditions. Others argue that they are rooted in political conceptions of justice and the innate dignity of the human person.

A theological interpretation of human rights may offer them a metaphysical status that is secure in a highly diverse world. However, this would be very hard to achieve in practice. It would be very difficult to persuade billions of people that they have a spiritual obligation to respect human rights and to bring their societies into harmony with them. For that reason, a human rights movement will only have greater prospects for acceptance and realization if it can appeal to a wide range of political views, from the center-left to the center-right.