What Are Human Rights?

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Human rights are a set of fundamental standards that we, as individuals, expect from each other and must uphold. They include respect for each other and for our basic dignity, non-discrimination, tolerance, fairness, equality, justice, freedom of speech and conscience, and the right to a decent life.

In 1948, after the world was shaken by war and the horrors of the Holocaust, world leaders drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to ensure that these principles were respected by all nations and peoples. Since then, countries around the world have adopted a series of international laws and treaties to protect these rights.

The UDHR sets out 30 rights which apply to everyone on the planet, regardless of country, race, language or culture. These are known as ‘inalienable’ rights because they are fundamental to our humanity and cannot be awarded or surrendered by any authority or power. This means that all governments have a duty to promote and protect these rights for their citizens, regardless of their political, economic or cultural systems.

However, this doesn’t mean that governments never fail to live up to their obligations or that they don’t come under criticism for human rights violations, which are seen on our television screens and in newspapers every day. Civil society and organisations have an important role to play too, ensuring that businesses and institutions comply with discrimination laws and promote equality, while individuals should respect each other and strive to uphold human rights, including by not violating those of others.

It is a basic belief of human rights that all people have equal dignity, and this applies to everyone on the planet, whether they are criminals or heads of state. This is what gives the UDHR such powerful moral authority, and it is why it has been supported by every culture and major religion in the world. Some governments need to limit the rights of those who may pose a threat to public safety or to prevent crime, but this must be within certain limits, which reflect the minimum requirements for human dignity.

Some people argue that human rights must be interpreted according to cultures and religions, which is called “cultural relativism”. These arguments are wrong because, as has been demonstrated by the atrocities of the Holocaust, human rights must not be compromised for any reason. In addition, many of the most severe human rights violations, such as slavery, female genital cutting and the international sex trade are widely condemned by people around the globe regardless of their cultural context.

The UDHR states that all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and related, so that if any one of these rights is violated, the other rights will be undermined. Hence, the human rights treaties say that all governments must treat everyone’s rights in a similar way and with the same emphasis. This was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2005. It is a fundamental principle that underpins the entire framework of international law, including treaties on civil and political rights, economic and social rights, and labour and environmental rights.