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 sometimes 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 should be entitled to. Lesson over, time to go home… In reality though, there’s a lot more to it than that. People have long held ideas about the fundamental entitlements that every person is born to have. After the atrocities of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the United Nations (UN) was formed to foster international cooperation and develop a consensus about the basic rights of all humans.
The opening article of what is known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created by the UN in 1948, sums things up pretty well: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ This means that everyone, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, colour, religion, sexuality, or any other status, is entitled to the same freedoms and rights. They cannot be granted or taken away - they are inherent to us all.
Nowadays, these human rights are usually protected by laws, declarations, and conventions across all of the countries of the world. They are governed on an international, regional, and domestic level, and monitored and enforced by various organisations. This video gives a good explanation of how they work.
Why are human rights important?
Human rights protect people across the world. Each country has its own legal basis for the way the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is applied. For example, in the UK, the Human Rights Act 1998 outlines 23 articles that protect freedom, justice, and peace in the country. It means that public bodies must respect individual rights and that individuals can seek justice through British courts.
There are some other really crucial aspects of human rights that make them so important:
- They’re universal, meaning they belong to everyone.
- They’re inalienable, which means they cannot be taken away.
- They’re interconnected, so each is dependent on the others.
- They’re indivisible, meaning they must be considered as a whole.
- They’re non-discriminatory, so they have to apply to all without bias.
Human rights should allow each individual to reach their potential, without the fear of oppression, slavery, or abuse. Of course, some of these rights, such as the right to freedom, may be taken away if an individual commits a crime (they might get sent to prison, for example).
What are some examples of human rights?
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. Of course, 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 right entitles you to express your views freely without the government interfering, whether it’s vocally (such as through protest) or in books, art, on television, or through social media. However, you have to do so responsibly and in a way that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.
- The right to be treated equally. This means that 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 opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status’. This case study gives a good example of the challenges people face and the legal challenges they can make.
- The right to a fair trial. This grants you the right to have 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. In the UK, this fairness includes aspects such as you are innocent until proven guilty, you can remain silent, and your trial is held within a reasonable time.
- 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. You can read an interesting case study to get an example of how this applies.
- The right to education. Governments cannot deny you your right to education, and they must respect the rights of parents to make sure their philosophical and religious beliefs are respected when a child is in the education system.
You can find a full list of the areas covered on the UN website and a useful, simplified version here.
Respecting human rights
Understanding human rights is important for everyone. Not only does it give you the chance to see how they affect you personally, but it also means you can identify when others’ rights aren’t being respected. Whether it’s a friend from a minority background or an entire country under the rule of a dictator, human rights violations are unfortunately quite common.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a declaration, not a law. This means that it’s down to individual governments to respect the declaration and enforce laws protecting it. As our understanding of human rights grows and changes, it’s essential that we all take responsibility for recognising and advocating the rights of everyone.
If you’re interested in what you can do to actively protect and make sure human rights are enforced, organisations such as Amnesty International in the UK and US have more information.