What Are Human Rights?

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Human rights are fundamental freedoms and liberties that all people – wherever they live, whatever their circumstances – deserve and must be guaranteed. They are inalienable, universal and interdependent – no single right can be enjoyed without all others being fulfilled; and they are enforced by the rule of law and strengthened through legitimate claims by individuals to hold their duty-bearers accountable to international standards.

Humans innately seek equality, justice and protection. They may not always succeed in obtaining them, but they persist in seeking them nonetheless. For centuries, humans have sought to enact laws that give expression to these deep-seated desires. In ancient Babylon, for example, the Code of Hammurabi set out principles of fairness and law. In Rome, the Stoics held that human conduct should be judged by – and brought into harmony with – the law of nature.

These beliefs grew into modern human rights ideas, and in 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to provide a global road map for protecting these fundamental freedoms. The UDHR outlines the fundamental rights and liberties that everyone is entitled to, regardless of where they live or their economic or social status. It reflects the fact that, after the horrors of World War II and the atrocities committed by totalitarian regimes like the Holocaust, countries decided to act together to foster international peace and protect the lives of their citizens from the scourge of war and mass atrocity.

The UDHR is an historic achievement, but it has not completely solved the problem of ensuring that all countries uphold the standards of the Declaration. Many governments still violate the rights of their citizens, often with impunity. However, great progress has been made since the UDHR was first signed and adopted: the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, the votes for women, the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and the fact that almost all European states have abolished capital punishment or have announced moratoriums on executions are just a few examples.

It is important to note that there is no one answer as to what exactly constitutes a human right; two people can have the same general idea of human rights but disagree about the precise list of such rights, and about whether there are universal moral rights. This pluralistic approach reflects the fact that human rights are not a science but an evolving area of moral and legal thought.

The UDHR also provides mechanisms for monitoring compliance with these international standards. Various international committees exist to investigate allegations of human rights violations, and in some cases these breaches have led to war crimes tribunals and other types of prosecution. The work of these organisations and the vigilance of their members are essential to ensure that human rights are upheld globally. A state that loses sight of its own citizens’ rights forfeits the right to claim its sovereignty and its claim to legitimacy.