What Are Human Rights and How Are They Enforced?

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Human rights are things that everybody deserves to be able to get by virtue of being a person. Generally, they’re a person’s basic entitlements to food, shelter and security in their daily lives. Unlike privileges, which can be taken away by someone else’s whims, human rights are legally and morally protected. However, people often don’t know exactly what human rights are or how they are enforceable. That can make them vulnerable to abuses such as wrongful termination, for example.

A good understanding of human rights is important to avoid such abuses. It also helps to recognise when you have been abused and what steps to take. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted after World War II to give people a common understanding of what humans essentially deserve as human beings. The Declaration provides a framework for addressing the many issues and threats facing humankind today.

The Universal Declaration describes four defining features of human rights: equality, non-discrimination, participation and dignity. It states that all persons are equal in their human dignity and that they are free from discrimination in the enjoyment of their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. It further provides that every person and all peoples are entitled to the active and full participation in and contribution to society of all its members on the basis of their human dignity, without distinction of any kind.

It is these defining characteristics that help define the scope of human rights as a legal concept and as an ethical value. While some philosophers believe that human rights exist most basically in natural law, which is derived from different philosophical and religious grounds, others, including Rawls, prefer to describe them as a product of the politics of a given sphere (in his book The Law of Peoples). From this perspective, they are not merely an expression of a preexisting moral consensus but rather of the morally acceptable requirements of the system under which international human rights have emerged.

Another reason why it is difficult to rely on a metaphysical or theological basis for human rights is that billions of people do not subscribe to the religions that do have this faith. To base human rights on a theological belief would require persuading them of a particular theological view and that is likely to be even more challenging than trying to persuade them of the idea of human rights in general. In any case, legal enactment is a much more practical and reliable basis for human rights.