What Are Human Rights and Why Do We Need Them?

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The concept of human rights focuses on the fact that each person, wherever they live and whatever their status in society, has a fundamental right not to be subjected to infringements upon their dignity. Those who violate human rights, whether they are governments, private companies or individuals, are guilty of crimes against humanity. It is this concept which inspired the creation of international laws, treaties and organisations to combat those who do not respect others’ rights.

But what are human rights and why do we need them? Human rights are the principle that each individual, irrespective of their position in society, is equal and has a right to liberty and security of life. They are the basic standards that people are born with, and which should be universally respected by all.

Many philosophers and writers have argued that human rights are inherent in humans because of their own nature. John Locke developed the idea that all people have certain natural rights which are derived from their own existence, and that government’s legitimacy rested on its recognition of these rights. Later, this was reformulated as “human rights” – the principle that each person has inalienable rights which are universally recognised and inherent.

The enshrining of these rights in law is the best way of guaranteeing their universal availability and application. It also provides a basis for imposing penalties on those who systematically ignore them: countries that do not fulfil their human rights obligations may be punished by the imposition of sanctions, such as the prohibition of trade, to put pressure on them to change. This is what happened when South Africa was isolated for apartheid; and what is happening with North Korea, Iran and other states that violate human rights.

Nevertheless, many people think that this is not enough. The idea that people are intrinsically endowed with certain rights is not a Western invention, and it can be traced back in many cultures, through revered leaders, influential codes of practice and in the works of the great poets and playwrights. For example, the title character in Sophocles’ Antigone, upon being reproached by King Creon for refusing to bury her brother, claimed that she was acting in accordance with the law of nature.

The terrible atrocities that occurred in World War II gave rise to a new body of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established a common understanding of what everyone should be entitled to. In particular, it enshrined the rights to freedom from discrimination, torture and oppression. Since then, further treaties and organisations have been established to expand the concept of human rights, which now includes rights for women, children, minorities and disabled people, in order to ensure that every aspect of society, from business to healthcare, is based on universal standards of respect and equality. This is the basis for a society built on justice and peace.