The concept of human rights is something that binds all 7.7 billion of us human beings together, no matter where we’re from or what our background is. Yet it’s an idea that can often be complex and infringed upon. We take a look at everything you need to know about human rights, including what they are, why they’re important, and how you can stand up for them.
What are human rights?
Human rights are the basic rights that all humans are entitled to.
Since 1948, they have been laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose first article starts with the famous line ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’
The UDHR has 30 articles, covering the rights to life and liberty, freedom from slavery, the right to work and to have an education, to free speech, to representation in your government, and more.
These are some of the really important aspects of human rights:
- They’re universal, meaning they belong to everyone regardless of nationality, ethnicity, colour, religion, sexuality, or anything else.
- They’re inalienable, which means they cannot be taken away, though they can be restricted in specific circumstances - like when a person breaks the law, or breaches national security.
- They’re interconnected and indivisible, so each is dependent on the others and they must be considered as a whole.
- They’re non-discriminatory, so they have to apply to all without bias.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
People have held various ideas about the fundamental rights that every person is born with since humans first existed, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an attempt to capture them in writing, in a document that all countries could sign and promise to uphold. The UDHR was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and was created as a result of the experience of the Second World War. The atrocities committed during this time, which included the Holocaust, inspired the international community of world leaders to try and prevent this from happening again.
Some countries abstained from voting in support of the Universal Declaration of Rights, for various reasons. For example, as stated in a 2018 comparative study by Public Law researcher Nisrine Abiad, Saudi Arabia abstained on religious grounds, and the Soviet Union, abstained on ideological grounds.
Today, there are 192 countries that are members of the United Nations, and all have expressed their agreement with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Some examples of the human rights in the Universal Declaration
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights covers a broad range of areas, making sure the essential things that make us human are covered. Some of the focuses include:
- The right to life. This means that nobody, including the government, can try and end your life. In fact, governments must safeguard life by creating laws protecting it. However, a person’s right to life might be forfeit if they are carrying out unlawful violence or attempting to end the life of another.
- The right to freedom of expression. This entitles you to express your views freely without government interference, whether it’s vocally (such as through protest) or in books, art, on television, or through social media.
- The right to be treated equally. All human rights must be applied evenly and without discrimination. You should not be treated differently based on, ‘sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or another status’.
- The right to a fair trial. You are given the right to a fair and public trial. It applies whether you’ve been charged with a criminal offense or if your civil rights have been impacted by a public authority.
- The right to privacy. This right applies to your private life. It means you’re entitled to respect and privacy in regards to your family, your home, and your communication (such as emails, letters, phone calls etc.) It also includes aspects such as your right to form friendships and relationships, take part in leisure activities, and keep your body private.
- The right to education. Everyone has the right to an education, and in particular to free elementary education.
Human rights in practice
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a declaration, not a law, so it’s down to individual governments to respect the declaration and enforce laws protecting it. This means that though the UDHR is universal, different countries might interpret and protect the same rights in different ways. For example, the right to freedom of expression can have different restrictions on it depending on the country: in the UK, hate speech is an offence in itself, whereas in the US, it might be protected (depending on what is being said exactly) under the First Amendment.
Additionally, human rights violations are unfortunately common, even in countries that have signed the Declaration. Whether it’s someone from a minority background experiencing discrimination or an entire country under the rule of a dictator, there is still a lot of work to do to ensure everyone has the rights they are entitled to.
Protecting human rights: how to get involved
If you’re interested in what you can do to actively protect and make sure human rights are enforced, here are some of the ways you can do just that.
- Find out more about current human rights crises. You can do this by checking out the work of international development and human rights advocacy organisations such as Amnesty International.
- Sign petitions. There are often petitions to raise awareness about ongoing crises and put pressure on the people or governments responsible for them. Some of the major sites that host petitions are governmental sites, change.org and Youth for Human Rights.
- Volunteer or donate to a cause. Many organisations fight across the world to ensure people have access to their rights. For example, UNICEF and Save the Children are two organisations focused on protecting the rights of children globally.
Good stuff from elsewhere
What are universal human rights?
TED talk by Benedetta Berti
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
On the UN website