What Are Human Rights?

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Human rights are moral principles that govern the way governments and individuals treat their citizens. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.”

The idea that people have rights that they are entitled to receive or not receive from others is the basis for a system of laws and international conventions. These laws set out a wide range of fundamental rights that are to be enjoyed by every person on earth, without exception or discrimination. Most of these rights are civil and political, although some are economic, social and cultural in nature.

All of these rights are fundamental to human dignity and are inalienable, meaning that no one can voluntarily give them up or allow someone else to take them away from them. They are also indivisible and interdependent, which means that no one right is more important than another, but that the enjoyment of all human rights depends in some way on the enjoyment of other rights.

Some scholars trace the idea of human rights back to ancient Greece and Rome, where it was closely tied to ideas of natural law. The Stoics believed that human conduct should be judged by, and brought into harmony with, the immutable laws of nature. A classic example of this view is the play Antigone by Sophocles, in which the title character defies King Creon’s order not to bury her brother, because she believed that his command was contrary to the laws of nature.

After the terrible atrocities of World War II, which were widely considered to be violations of human rights, widespread acceptance and ratification of human rights laws occurred in most countries of the world. The large majority of those polled in countries across the globe said that they supported the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, this broad support for human rights has not prevented the resurgence of authoritarianism in many regions of the world. Despite this, large majorities of those surveyed continue to believe that human rights are fundamental to the survival of the human species and that it is a matter of urgency for the world’s nations to make every effort to uphold the human rights principles contained in the Universal Declaration.

Many organizations and groups are working to promote and protect human rights around the world, and most major countries have ratified some or all of the core international human rights treaties (see the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International websites in the Other Internet Resources section below). Some of these organizations and groups focus on particular human rights issues such as sex equality, minority rights, indigenous rights, and the environment. Others work to advance the universality of human rights, and still others advocate for the full implementation of the 30 articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.