What Are Human Rights?

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Human rights are the standards that deserve universal protection in order for every person to live freely, equally and in dignity. They are based on the idea that all people have a basic moral worth and are entitled to certain minimum requirements for living with dignity, regardless of their status, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. They are a set of moral norms that are shared by the vast majority of civilised nations and most major religions. These rights are recognised by almost all cultures in the world and by most civilised governments as a fundamental element of their culture.

The term ‘human rights’ has only been in wide use since the end of World War II and the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It replaced the phrase ‘natural rights’, which had fallen out of favour with the rise of legal positivism in the 19th century and its rejection of the theory, long espoused by religious thinkers, that law must be moral to be legally valid.

John Locke, a British philosopher who wrote Two Treatises of Government, developed the concept of natural law by asserting that the right to life, liberty and property derives from one’s own nature rather than from their relationship to their government. He also turned Hobbes’ prescription on its head, saying that if a ruler goes against the rules of natural law, the people might justifiably overthrow the regime and establish a new one.

Most countries have ratified the major international human rights conventions and treaties, indicating their agreement with and voluntarily binding themselves to them. Some have also set up their own national systems for identifying and protecting human rights. These are usually based on the UN system but with more local influence, and they tend to focus on specific categories of rights, such as minority and group rights (e.g., women’s rights, racial and ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples) or labour rights (e.g., a decent wage and adequate working conditions).

The question of which norms are considered to be human rights is often a matter of controversy and debate. Some argue that the UDHR and its international treaties are authoritative guides to which rights are considered human rights, while others say that only if a particular problem is included on an official list of human rights can it be taken seriously as such.

Even if there were reliable ways of finding out what counts as a human right, it would still be difficult to agree on which problems should receive this status. This is because human rights are a moral construct, and the questions of what is right or wrong can be resolved only through open-minded and serious moral inquiry. These moral enquiries must take true premises into account about current institutions, problems and resources. Only then can we reach rational agreement on which standards humans may justifiably expect of each other and of their governments.