What are human rights?
Human rights are so basic that those who are lucky enough to have them may take them for granted. We drink clean water; have sufficient, uncontaminated food; access good healthcare; are able to go to school, say or write what we think (within limits), practise our beliefs, safely earn a living, vote for a political party; and expect to be treated fairly by others.
Yet not all people in the world have these basic needs met or protected. Nearly one-third of the world’s population lives in poverty, without adequate food, water, education and healthcare. Many people are discriminated against because of their gender, race, religious beliefs or disability. Many people face unfair work practices, illegal detention, persecution, torture and death because their governments do not protect their rights.
Human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. They are fundamental for development, democracy and security.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It outlines the rights of all people. The rights stated in the declaration can be grouped as:
- Civil and political – rights that protect individual freedoms and participation in the decision-making processes of the community and those that relate to freedom of thought, opinion and religion (see Articles 2–21)
- Economic, social and cultural – rights that achieve a minimum standard of living (food, healthcare) and which ensure a share in a country’s economic welfare (employment, education) (see Articles 22–27).
How are human rights protected?
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights outlines the hope for a free and fair world, but signatories are not legally bound to uphold it. However, the following conventions and protocols, which have been developed to improve the protection of human rights for all people, are legally binding:
- The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1954)
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
- The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969)
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981)
- The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984)
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990).
After signing one of these formal documents a country must develop laws to formalise its commitment, and it must report on its progress to groups within the United Nations. Each country’s progress is reviewed and a report with recommendations for improvement is written.
Why doesn’t everyone have access to their human rights?
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights and its related conventions are ambitious and complex documents. Implementing them is a great challenge for all countries. Some rights may conflict with others. Some rights may need money which governments may not have. Some groups, such as women, children and people with disabilities may need a change of culture to improve equality. Governments may feel the need to restrict rights to freedom of speech or peaceful assembly in times of instability and conflict.
How do human rights improve life?
Human rights protecting the rights of all people including women, children, indigenous, refugees and those living with disabilities are fundamental principles of the United Nations and are crucial to eliminating poverty, improving the health and welfare of people, and achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Until everyone has their rights protected, the world remains an unsafe and unfair place. When women and men have relative equality, economies grow faster and there is less corruption. When women are healthy and educated, their families, communities and nations benefit.
How can we can help protect human rights?
Learning about rights and responsibilities and how to protect them helps individuals and communities to participate in decision-making and holds governments accountable. Governments and decision-makers often need assistance to develop the capacity, resources and political will to fulfil their commitments to human rights.