What Are Human Rights?

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Human rights are things everyone is entitled to simply because they are human. This includes the right to live in safety, to have food and a place to stay and to get paid fairly for work that people do. People also have a right to profess their religion and speak freely. They have a right to go where they want and see who they like without fear of harm or arrest and to vote in political elections.

People who think about human rights often argue that such rights are not only important for their own sake but that they have a positive effect on other people and on the societies in which they live. This is because enforcing rights creates incentives for people to treat one another fairly. In addition, the existence of human rights makes it harder for governments to ignore or trample on the fundamental dignity of their citizens and allows international organizations to hold them accountable when they do not respect the rights of people in their countries.

In the past, people who argued in favour of human rights used arguments such as those set out by the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, where they argued that humans are born with certain natural laws that are unalterable. This view, called natural law theory or the law of nature, has been rejected by most modern scholars because it is difficult to show that such laws exist. Moreover, even if they did, the fact that people behave differently under different circumstances would mean that there could be no universal laws that apply to all humans at all times.

Nevertheless, some philosophers still believe that there are human rights and that they can be defended. Some, such as Dworkin (2011), believe that there are only a very limited number of human rights, whereas others accept plurality (see Cohen 2004, Ignatieff 2004).

Many people have also tried to show that it is possible to identify what human rights are. They have used a variety of methods such as examining laws that already exist at the national and international levels, evaluating the behaviour of states in respect of these rights, the practices and moralities of particular groups of people or by looking at what other societies do. They have also attempted to make the criteria for a human right as clear as possible, avoiding “too complicated bends,” enlarging rights to give them safety margins and consulting facts about human nature and society.

The United Nations was the first major international organisation to spell out, in a legally binding document, a list of human rights that all countries must honour. This was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948. Since then, there have been huge strides in ensuring that human rights are respected throughout the world. These include the abolition of slavery, the granting of voting rights to women and the end of apartheid in South Africa. However, there is much more to be done.