Human rights are commonly understood as “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being.” Human rights are thus conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and egalitarian (the same for everyone). These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights , in both national and international law . The doctrine of human rights in international practice, within international law, global and regional institutions, in the policies of states and in the activities of non-governmental organizations, has been a cornerstone of public policy around the world. The idea of human rightsstates, “if the public discourse of peacetime global society can be said to have a common moral language, it is that of human rights.” Despite this, the strong claims made by the doctrine of human rights continue to provoke considerable skepticism and debates about the content, nature and justifications of human rights to this day. Indeed, the question of what is meant by a “right” is itself controversial and the subject of continued philosophical debate.
Many of the basic ideas that animated the human rights movement developed in the aftermath of the Second World War and the atrocities of The Holocaust, culminating in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The ancient world did not possess the concept of universal human rights. Ancient societies had “elaborate systems of duties… conceptions of justice, political legitimacy, and human flourishing that sought to realize human dignity, flourishing, or well-being entirely independent of human rights”. The modern concept of human rights developed during the early Modern period, alongside the European secularization of Judeo-Christian ethics. The true forerunner of human rights discourse was the concept of natural rights which appeared as part of the medieval Natural law tradition that became prominent during the Enlightenment with such philosophers as John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, and featured prominently in the political discourse of the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
From this foundation, the modern human rights arguments emerged over the latter half of the twentieth century. Gelling as social activism and political rhetoric in many nations put it high on the world agenda.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
INTERDEPENDENT AND INDIVISIBLE
All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education, or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination, are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others.
History of concept
Main article: History of human rights
The modern sense of human rights can be traced to Renaissance Europe and the Protestant Reformation, alongside the disappearance of the feudal authoritarianism and religious conservativism that dominated the Middle Ages. Human rights were defined as a result of European scholars attempting to form a “secularized version of Judeo-Christian ethics”. Although ideas of rights and liberty have existed in some form for much of human history, they do not resemble the modern conception of human rights. According to Jack Donnelly, in the ancient world, “traditional societies typically have had elaborate systems of duties… conceptions of justice, political legitimacy, and human flourishing that sought to realize human dignity, flourishing, or well-being entirely independent of human rights. These institutions and practices are alternative to, rather than different formulations of, human rights”. The most commonly held view is that concept of human rights evolved in the West, and that while earlier cultures had important ethical concepts, they generally lacked a concept of human rights. For example, McIntyre argues there is no word for “right” in any language before 1400. Medieval charters of liberty such as the English Magna Carta were not charters of human rights, rather they were the foundation  and constituted a form of limited political and legal agreement to address specific political circumstances, in the case of Magna Carta later being recognised in the course of early modern debates about rights. One of the oldest records of human rights is the statute of Kalisz (1264), giving privileges to the Jewish minority in the Kingdom of Poland such as protection from discrimination and hate speech. The basis of most modern legal interpretations of human rights can be traced back to recent European history. The Twelve Articles (1525) are considered to be the first record of human rights in Europe. They were part of the peasants’ demands raised towards the Swabian League in the German Peasants’ War in Germany.
The earliest conceptualization of human rights is credited to ideas about natural rightsemanating from natural law. In particular, the issue of universal rights was introduced by the examination of the rights of indigenous peoples by Spanish clerics, such as Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de Las Casas. In the Valladolid debate, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who maintained an Aristotelian view of humanity as divided into classes of different worth, argued with Las Casas, who argued in favor of equal rights to freedom of slavery for all humans regardless of race or religion. In Britain in 1683, the English Bill of Rights (or “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown”) and the Scottish Claim of Right each made illegal a range of oppressive governmental actions. Two major revolutions occurred during the 18th century, in the United States (1776) and in France (1789), leading to the adoption of the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen respectively, both of which established certain legal rights. Additionally, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 encoded into law a number of fundamental civil rights and civil freedoms.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approved by the National
Assembly of France, August 26, 1789.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
—United States Declaration of Independence, 1776
These were followed by developments in philosophy of human rights by philosophers such as Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and G.W.F. Hegel during the 18th and 19th centuries. The term human rights probably came into use some time between Paine’s The Rights of Man and William Lloyd Garrison’s 1831 writings in The Liberator, in which he stated that he was trying to enlist his readers in “the great cause of human rights”.
In the 19th century, human rights became a central concern over the issue of slavery. A number of reformers, such as William Wilberforce in Britain, worked towards theabolition of slavery. This was achieved in the British Empire by the Slave Trade Act 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. In the United States, all the northern states had abolished the institution of slavery between 1777 and 1804, although southern states clung tightly to the “peculiar institution”. Conflict and debates over the expansion of slavery to new territories constituted one of the reasons for the southern states’ secession and the American Civil War. During the reconstruction period immediately following the war, several amendments to the United States Constitution were made. These included the 13th amendment, banning slavery, the 14th amendment, assuring full citizenship and civil rights to all people born in the United States, and the 15th amendment, guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote.
Many groups and movements have achieved profound social changes over the course of the 20th century in the name of human rights. In Europe and North America, labour unions brought about laws granting workers the right to strike, establishing minimum work conditions and forbidding or regulating child labor. The women’s rights movement succeeded in gaining for many women the right to vote. National liberation movements in many countries succeeded in driving out colonial powers. One of the most influential was Mahatma Gandhi’s movement to free his native India from British rule. Movements by long-oppressed racial and religious minorities succeeded in many parts of the world, among them the African American Civil Rights Movement, and more recent diverse identity politics movements, on behalf of women and minorities in the United States.
The establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the 1864 Lieber Code and the first of the Geneva Conventions in 1864 laid the foundations of International humanitarian law, to be further developed following the two World Wars.
The World Wars, and the huge losses of life and gross abuses of human rights that took place during them, were a driving force behind the development of modern human rights instruments. The League of Nations was established in 1919 at the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles following the end of World War I. The League’s goals included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through negotiation and diplomacy, and improving global welfare. Enshrined in its charter was a mandate to promote many of the rights later included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At the 1945 Yalta Conference, the Allied Powers agreed to create a new body to supplant the League’s role; this was to be the United Nations. The United Nations has played an important role in international human-rights law since its creation. Following the World Wars, the United Nations and its members developed much of the discourse and the bodies of law that now make up international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
Main article: Philosophy of human rights The philosophy of human rights attempts to examine the underlying basis of the concept of human rights and critically looks at its content and justification. Several theoretical approaches have been advanced to explain how and why human rights have become a part of social expectations.
One of the oldest Western philosophies of human rights is that they are a product of a natural law, stemming from different philosophical or religious grounds. Other theories hold that human rights codify moral behavior which is a human social product developed by a process of biological and social evolution (associated with Hume). Human rights are also described as a sociological pattern of rule setting (as in the sociological theory of law and the work of Weber). These approaches include the notion that individuals in a society accept rules from legitimate authority in exchange for security and economic advantage (as in Rawls) – a social contract. The two theories that dominate contemporary human rights discussion are the interest theory and the will theory. Interest theory argues that the principal function of human rights is to protect and promote certain essential human interests, while will theory attempts to establish the validity of human rights based on the unique human capacity for freedom.
The strong claims made by human rights to universality have led to persistent criticism. Philosophers who have criticized the concept of human rights include Jeremy Bentham,Edmund Burke, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. Political philosophy professor Charles Blattberg argues that discussion of human rights, being abstract, demotivates people from upholding the values that rights are meant to affirm. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives particular attention to two types of criticisms: the one questioning universality of human rights and the one denying them objective ground. Alain Pellet, an international law scholar, criticizes “human rightism” approach as denying the principle of sovereignty and claiming a special place for human rights among the branches of international law; Alain de Benoist questions human rights premises of human equality. David Kennedy had listed pragmatic worries and polemical charges concerning human rights in 2002 in Harvard Human Rights Journal.
Human rights can be classified and organized in a number of different ways, at an international level the most common categorisation of human rights has been to split them into civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights.
Civil and political rights are enshrined in articles 3 to 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR). Economic, social and cultural rights are enshrined in articles 22 to 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
A. UDHR included both economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights because it was based on the principle that the different rights could only successfully exist in combination:
Opponents of the indivisibility of human rights argue that economic, social and cultural rights are fundamentally different from civil and political rights and require completely different approaches. Economic, social and cultural rights are argued to be:
Olivia Ball and Paul Gready argue that for both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, it is easy to find examples which do not fit into the above categorisation. Among several others, they highlight the fact that maintaining a judicial system, a fundamental requirement of the civil right to due process before the law and other rights relating to judicial process, is positive, resource-intensive, progressive and vague, while the social right to housing is precise, justiciable and can be a real ‘legal’ right.
Another categorization, offered by Karel Vasak, is that there are three generations of human rights: first-generation civil and political rights (right to life and political participation), second-generation economic, social and cultural rights (right to subsistence) and third-generation solidarity rights (right to peace, right to clean environment). Out of these generations, the third generation is the most debated and lacks both legal and political recognition. This categorisation is at odds with the indivisibility of rights, as it implicitly states that some rights can exist without others. Prioritisation of rights for pragmatic reasons is however a widely accepted necessity. Human rights expertPhilip Alston argues:
Main article: International human rights law
In the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II, there was increased concern for the social and legal protection of human rights as fundamental freedoms. The foundation of the United Nations and the provisions of the United Nations Charter provided a basis for a comprehensive system of international law and practise for the protection of human rights. Since then, international human rights law has been characterized by a linked system of conventions, treaties, organisations, and political bodies, rather than any single entity or set of laws.
United Nations Charter
Main article: United Nations Charter
The provisions of the United Nations Charter provided a basis for the development of international human rights protection. The preamble of the charter provides that the members “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the equal rights of men and women” and Article 1(3) of the United Nations charter states that one of the purposes of the UN is: “to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. Article 55 provides that:
Of particular importance is Article 56 of the charter:”All Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55.” This is a binding treaty provision applicable to both the Organisation and its members and has been taken to constitute a legal obligation for the members of the United Nations. Overall, the references to human rights in the Charter are general and vague. The Charter does not contain specific legal rights, nor does it mandate any enforcement procedures to protect these rights. Despite this, the significance of the espousal of human rights within the UN charter must not be understated. The importance of human rights on the global stage can be traced to the importance of human rights within the United Nations framework and the UN Charter can be seen as the starting point for the development of a broad array of declarations, treaties, implementation and enforcement mechanisms, UN organs, committees and reports on the protection of human rights. The rights espoused in the UN charter would be codified and defined in the International Bill of Human Rights, composing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Main article: Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“It is not a treaty…[In the future, it]
may well become the
international Magna Carta.”
Eleanor Roosevelt with the
Spanish text of the Universal
Declaration in 1949.
A. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, partly in response to the atrocities of World War II. Although the UDHR was a non-binding resolution, it is now considered by some to have acquired the force of international customary law which may be invoked in appropriate circumstances by national and other judiciaries.The UDHR urges member nations to promote a number of human, civil, economic and social rights, asserting these rights as part of the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The declaration was the first international legal effort to limit the behaviour of states and press upon them duties to their citizens following the model of the rights-duty duality.
was framed by members of the Human Rights Commission, with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as Chair, who began to discuss an International Bill of Rights in 1947. The members of the Commission did not immediately agree on the form of such a bill of rights, and whether, or how, it should be enforced. The Commission proceeded to frame the UDHR and accompanying treaties, but the UDHR quickly became the priority. Canadian law professor John Humphrey and French lawyer René Cassin were responsible for much of the cross-national research and the structure of the document respectively, where the articles of the declaration were interpretative of the general principle of the preamble. The document was structured by Cassin to include the basic principles of dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood in the first two articles, followed successively by rights pertaining to individuals; rights of individuals in relation to each other and to groups; spiritual, public and political rights; and economic, social and cultural rights. The final three articles place, according to Cassin, rights in the context of limits, duties and the social and political order in which they are to be realized. Humphrey and Cassin intended the rights in the UDHR to be legally enforceable through some means, as is reflected in the third clause of the preamble:
Some of the UDHR was researched and written by a committee of international experts on human rights, including representatives from all continents and all major religions, and drawing on consultation with leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi. The inclusion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights was predicated on the assumption that all human rights are indivisible and that the different types of rights listed are inextricably linked. This principle was not then opposed by any member states (the declaration was adopted unanimously, Byelorussian SSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Ukrainian SSR, Union of South Africa, USSR, Yugoslavia.); however, this principle was later subject to significant challenges.
The Universal Declaration was bifurcated into treaties, a Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and another on social, economic, and cultural rights, due to questions about the relevance and propriety of economic and social provisions in covenants on human rights. Both covenants begin with the right of people to self-determination and to sovereignty over their natural resources. This debate over whether human rights are more fundamental than economic rights has continued to the present day.
The drafters of the Covenants initially intended only one instrument. The original drafts included only political and civil rights, but economic and social rights were also proposed. The disagreement over which rights were basic human rights resulted in there being two covenants. The debate was whether economic and social rights are aspirational, as contrasted with basic human rights which all people possess purely by being human, because economic and social rights depend on wealth and the availability of resources. In addition, which social and economic rights should be recognised depends on ideology or economic theories, in contrast to basic human rights, which are defined purely by the nature (mental and physical abilities) of human beings. It was debated whether economic rights were appropriate subjects for binding obligations and whether the lack of consensus over such rights would dilute the strength of political-civil rights. There was wide agreement and clear recognition that the means required to enforce or induce compliance with socio-economic undertakings were different from the means required for civil-political rights.
This debate and the desire for the greatest number of signatories to human-rights law led to the two covenants. The Soviet bloc and a number of developing countries had argued for the inclusion of all rights in a so-called Unity Resolution. Both covenants allowed states to derogate some rights. Those in favor of a single treaty could not gain sufficient consensus.
In 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were adopted by theUnited Nations, between them making the rights contained in the UDHR binding on all states that have signed this treaty, creating human-rights law.
Since then numerous other treaties (pieces of legislation) have been offered at the international level. They are generally known as human rights instruments. Some of the most significant, referred to (with ICCPR and ICESCR) as “the seven core treaties”, are:
Customary international law
Main article: Customary international law
In addition to protection by international treaties, customary international law may protect some human rights, such as the prohibition of torture, genocide and slavery and the principle of non-discrimination.
International humanitarian law
Main articles: Geneva Conventions and International humanitarian law
A. Geneva Conventions came into being between 1864 and 1949 as a result of efforts by Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The conventions safeguard the human rights of individuals involved in armed conflict, and build on the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the international community’s first attempt to formalize the laws of war and war crimes in the nascent body of secular international law. The conventions were revised as a result of World War II and readopted by the international community in 1949.
United Nations system
Structure of the United Nations Human
Rights Bodies and Mechanisms
Main article: United Nations Security Council
Under the mandate of the UN charter, the and the multilateral UN human rights treaties, the United Nations (UN) as an intergovernmental body seeks to apply internationaljurisdiction for universal human-rights legislation. Within the UN machinery, human-rights issues are primarily the concern of the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations Human Rights Council, and there are numerous committees within the UN with responsibilities for safeguarding different human-rights treaties. The most senior body of the UN in the sphere of human rights is the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The United Nations has an international mandate to:
A. United Nations Security Council has the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security and is the only body of the UN that can authorize the use of force. It has been criticised for failing to take action to prevent human rights abuses, including the Darfur crisis, the Srebrenica massacre and the Rwandan Genocide.For example, critics blamed the presence of non-democracies on the Security Council for its failure regarding.
On April 28, 2006 the Security Council adopted resolution 1674 that reaffirmed the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing andcrimes against humanity” and committed the Security Council to action to protect civilians in armed conflict.
The UN General Assembly
Main article: United Nations General Assembly
United Nations General Assembly, under Article 13 of the UN Charter, has the power to initiate studies and make recommendations on human rights issues. Under this provision, the general assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and since then a wide variety of other human rights instruments. The assembly has several subsidiary organs that deal with specific human rights issues, such as the Special Committee on Decolonisation and the Special Commission against Apartheid (no longer operational). In addition the general assembly has set up a number of subsidiary organs that consider human rights issues in a number of high-profile contexts: such as the UN Council on Namibia, the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practises in the Occupied territories and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable rights of the Palestine People.
Human Rights Council
Main article: United Nations Human Rights Council
A. United Nations Human Rights Council, created at the 2005 World Summit to replace the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, has a mandate to investigate violations of human rights. The Human Rights Council is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly and reports directly to it. It ranks below the Security Council, which is the final authority for the interpretation of the United Nations Charter. Forty-seven of the one hundred ninety-one member states sit on the council, elected by simple majority in a secret ballot of the United Nations General Assembly. Members serve a maximum of six years and may have their membership suspended for gross human rights abuses. The Council is based in Geneva, and meets three times a year; with additional meetings to respond to urgent situations.
Independent experts (rapporteurs) are retained by the Council to investigate alleged human rights abuses and to provide the Council with reports.
The Human Rights Council may request that the Security Council take action when human rights violations occur. This action may be direct actions, may involve sanctions, and the Security Council may also refer cases to the International Criminal Court (ICC) even if the issue being referred is outside the normal jurisdiction of the ICC.
In addition to the political bodies whose mandate flows from the UN charter, the UN has set up a number of treaty-based bodies, comprising committees of independent experts who monitor compliance with human rights standards and norms flowing from the core international human rights treaties. They are supported by and are created by the treaty that they monitor, With the exception of theCESCR, which was established under a resolution of the Economic and Social Council to carry out the monitoring functions originally assigned to that body under the Covenant, they are technically autonomous bodies, established by the treaties that they monitor and accountable to the state parties of those treaties – rather than subsidiary to the United Nations. Though in practise they are closely intertwined with the United Nations system and are supported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) and the UN Center for Human Rights.
Regional human rights regimes
Main article: Regional human rights regimes
International human rights regime’s are in several cases “nested” within more comprehensive and overlapping regional agreements. These regional regimes can be seen as relatively independently coherent human rights sub-regimes. Three principle regional human rights instruments can be identified, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights (the Americas) and the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights has since 1950 defined and guaranteed human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. All 47 member states of the Council of Europe have signed the Convention and are therefore under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.