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Human Rights

Since this piece is from more than one source, it is advised that it be read cautiously for there could be perspectives in it which do not represent universal acceptance.


Human rights are "rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled". Proponents of the concept usually assert that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements merely by reason of being human.  Human rights are thus conceived in a universalist and egalitarian fashion. Such entitlements can exist as shared norms of actual human moralities, as justified moral norms or natural rights supported by strong reasons, or as legal rights either at a national level or within international law.  However, there is no consensus as to the precise nature of what in particular should or should not be regarded as a human right in any of the preceding senses, and the abstract concept of human rights has been a subject of intense philosophical debate and criticism.


The modern conception of human rights developed in the aftermath of the Second World War, in part as a response to the Holocaust, culminating in its adoption by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. However, while the phrase "human rights" is relatively modern the intellectual foundations of the modern concept can be traced through the history of philosophy and the concepts of natural law rights and liberties as far back as the city states of Classical Greece and the development of Roman Law. The true forerunner of human rights discourse was the enlightenment concept of natural rights developed by figures such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant and through the political realm in the United States Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

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.

Although ideas of rights and liberty have existed for much of human history, it is unclear to what degree such concepts can be described as "human rights" in the modern sense. The concept of rights certainly existed in pre-modern cultures; ancient philosophers such as Aristotle wrote extensively on the rights (to dikaion in ancient Greek, roughly a 'just claim') of citizens to property and participation in public affairs. However, neither the Greeks nor the Romans had any concept of universal human rights; slavery, for instance, was justified in both ancient and modern times as a natural condition. Medieval charters of liberty such as the English Magna Carta were not charters of human rights, let alone general charters of rights: they instead constituted a form of limited political and legal agreement to address specific political circumstances, in the case of Magna Carta later being mythologized in the course of early modern debates about rights.

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. 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 sometime 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 the abolition 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, many northern states had abolished the institution of slavery by the mid-19th century, although southern states were still economically dependent on slave labour. Conflict and debates over the expansion of slavery to new territories culminated in 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 Western Europe and North America, labour unions brought about laws granting workers the right to strike, establishing minimum work conditions and forbidding or regulating child labour. 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.

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 become part of social expectations.

One of the oldest Western philosophies on 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 behaviour 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 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 and have led to persistent criticism. Philosophers who have criticized the concept of human rights include Jeremy Bentham, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx.

International law

Modern international conceptions of human rights can be traced to the aftermath of World War II and the foundation of the United Nations. 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”.  The rights espoused in the UN charter would be codified 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

The 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 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.

“              ...recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world          ”

Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

The UDHR 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:

“              Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.          ”

—Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

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 basic 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, with the abstention of the Eastern Bloc, Apartheid South Africa and Saudi Arabia); however, this principle was later subject to significant challenges.

The Universal Declaration was bifurcated into two distinct and different covenants, a Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a second Covenant 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 has continued to this 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. The two covenants allowed states to adopt some rights and derogate others.[citation needed] Those in favor of having economic and social rights included with basic human rights could not gain sufficient consensus, despite their belief that all categories of rights should be linked.


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 the United 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:

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) (adopted 1966, entry into force: 1969)

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (entry into force: 1981)

United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) (adopted 1984, entry into force: 1984)

Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (adopted 1989, entry into force: 1989)

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (adopted 2006, entry into force: 2008)

International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW or more often MWC) (adopted 1990, entry into force: 2003)

Humanitarian Law

Original Geneva Convention in 1864.

The 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 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, 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.

International organizations

United Nations

The UN General Assembly

The United Nations (UN) as an intergovernmental body seeks to apply international jurisdiction for universal human-rights legislation.[25] 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:

“              ...achieve international co-operation 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, gender, language, or religion.        ”

—Article 1–3 of the United Nations Charter

Human Rights Council

The 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.


United Nations Security Council.

The 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 (including in the context of peace-keeping operations), or override member nations sovereignty by issuing binding Security Council resolutions. Created by the UN Charter, it is classed as a Charter Body of the United Nations. The UN Charter gives the Security Council the power to:

Investigate any situation threatening international peace;

Recommend procedures for peaceful resolution of a dispute;

Call upon other member nations to completely or partially interrupt economic relations as well as sea, air, postal, and radio communications, or to sever diplomatic relations; and

Enforce its decisions militarily if necessary.

The Security Council hears reports from all organs of the United Nations, and can take action over any issue which it feels threatens peace and security, including human rights issues. It has at times been criticised for failing to take action to prevent human rights abuses, including the Darfur crisis, the Srebrenica massacre and the Rwandan Genocide.[citation needed]

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognizes the Security Council as having the power to refer cases to the Court, where the Court could not otherwise exercise jurisdiction.

On April 28, 2006 the Security Council adopted resolution 1674 that "Reaffirm[ed] the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity" and committed the Security Council to action to protect civilians in armed conflict.

Other UN Treaty Bodies

A modern interpretation of the original Declaration of Human Rights was made in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. The degree of unanimity over these conventions, in terms of how many and which countries have ratified them varies, as does the degree to which they are respected by various states. The UN has set up a number of treaty-based bodies to monitor and study human rights, to be supported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). The bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties. They are created by the treaty that they monitor, except CESCR.

The Human Rights Committee promotes participation with the standards of the ICCPR. The eighteen members of the committee express opinions on member countries and make judgments on individual complaints against countries which have ratified an Optional Protocol to the treaty. The judgments, termed "views", are not legally binding.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights monitors the ICESCR and makes general comments on ratifying countries performance. It will have the power to receive complaints against the countries that opted into the Optional Protocol once it has come into force.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination monitors the CERD and conducts regular reviews of countries' performance. It can make judgments on complaints against member states allowing it, but these are not legally binding. It issues warnings to attempt to prevent serious contraventions of the convention.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors the CEDAW. It receives states' reports on their performance and comments on them, and can make judgments on complaints against countries which have opted into the 1999 Optional Protocol.

The Committee Against Torture monitors the CAT and receives states' reports on their performance every four years and comments on them. Its subcommittee may visit and inspect countries which have opted into the Optional Protocol.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child monitors the CRC and makes comments on reports submitted by states every five years. It does not have the power to receive complaints.

The Committee on Migrant Workers was established in 2004 and monitors the ICRMW and makes comments on reports submitted by states every five years. It will have the power to receive complaints of specific violations only once ten member states allow it.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was established in 2008 to monitor the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It has the power to receive complaints against the countries which have opted into the Optional Protocol.

Each treaty body receives secretariat support from the Human Rights Council and Treaties Division of Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva except CEDAW, which is supported by the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW). CEDAW formerly held all its sessions at United Nations headquarters in New York but now frequently meets at the United Nations Office in Geneva; the other treaty bodies meet in Geneva. The Human Rights Committee usually holds its March session in New York City.

Non-governmental Organizations

International non-governmental human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and FIDH monitor what they see as human rights issues around the world and promote their views on the subject. Human Rights organizations have been said to ""translate complex international issues into activities to be undertaken by concerned citizens in their own community". Human rights organizations frequently engage in lobbying and advocacy in an effort to convince the United Nations, supranational bodies and national governments to adopt their policies on human rights. Many human-rights organizations have observer status at the various UN bodies tasked with protecting human rights. A new (in 2009) nongovernmental human-rights conference is the Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering described by The Economist as "on its way to becoming a human-rights equivalent of the Davos economic forum." The same article noted that human-rights advocates are more and more divided amongst themselves over how violations of human rights are to be defined, notably as regards the Middle East.

There is criticism of human-rights organizations who use their status but allegedly move away from their stated goals. For example, Gerald M. Steinberg, a Israel-based academic, maintains that NGOs take advantage of a "halo effect" and are "given the status of impartial moral watchdogs" by governments and the media.  Such critics claim that this may be seen at various governmental levels, including when human-rights groups testify before investigation committees.

An example of how an NGO's halo effect is misused is with NUI Galway’s Irish Centre for Human Rights presenting its “distinguished graduate award” to Shawan Jabarin, an alleged senior activist in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist organization. “In addition to his suspected ties to the PFLP, Mr. Jabarin leads Al Haq, a Palestinian non-governmental organization (NGO) that participates in the de-legitimization of Israel and brings ‘lawfare’ cases against Israeli officials and those who do business with Israel,” says Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor. “The Irish Centre for Human Rights is making a mockery of human rights values by presenting Mr. Jabarin with this award. This completely devalues the work of individuals throughout the world who fight for these rights.”

The three principal regional human rights instruments are the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights (the Americas) and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Concepts in human rights

Indivisibility and categorization

The most common categorization of human rights is 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).


The 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:

“              The ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his social, economic and cultural rights            ”

—International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, 1966

This is held to be true because without civil and political rights the public cannot assert their economic, social and cultural rights. Similarly, without livelihoods and a working society, the public cannot assert or make use of civil or political rights (known as the full belly thesis).

The indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights has been confirmed by the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action:

“              All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and related. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis        ”

—Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, World Conference on Human Rights, 1993

This statement was again endorsed at the 2005 World Summit in New York

Although accepted by the signatories to the UDHR, most do not in practice give equal weight to the different types of rights. Some Western cultures have often given priority to civil and political rights, sometimes at the expense of economic and social rights such as the right to work, to education, health and housing. For example, in the United States there is no universal access to healthcare free at the point of use. That is not to say that Western cultures have overlooked these rights entirely (the welfare states that exist in Western Europe are evidence of this). Similarly the ex Soviet bloc countries and Asian countries have tended to give priority to economic, social and cultural rights, but have often failed to provide civil and political rights.


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:

positive, meaning that they require active provision of entitlements by the state (as opposed to the state being required only to prevent the breach of rights)

resource-intensive, meaning that they are expensive and difficult to provide

progressive, meaning that they will take significant time to implement

vague, meaning they cannot be quantitatively measured, and whether they are adequately provided or not is difficult to judge

ideologically divisive/political, meaning that there is no consensus on what should and shouldn't be provided as a right

socialist, as opposed to capitalist

non-justiciable, meaning that their provision, or the breach of them, cannot be judged in a court of law

aspirations or goals, as opposed to real 'legal' rights

Similarly civil and political rights are categorized as:

negative, meaning the state can protect them simply by taking no action


immediate, meaning they can be immediately provided if the state decides to

precise, meaning their provision is easy to judge and measure




real 'legal' rights

In The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights 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. Amongst 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 expert Philip Alston argues:

“              If every possible human rights element is deemed to be essential or necessary, then nothing will be treated as though it is truly important.         ”

—Philip Alston

He, and others, urge caution with prioritisation of rights:

“              ...the call for prioritizing is not to suggest that any obvious violations of rights can be ignored.     ”

—Philip Alston

“              Priorities, where necessary, should adhere to core concepts (such as reasonable attempts at progressive realization) and principles (such as non-discrimination, equality and participation.             ”

—Olivia Ball, Paul Gready

Some human rights are said to be "inalienable rights". The term inalienable rights (or unalienable rights) refers to "a set of human rights that are fundamental, are not awarded by human power, and cannot be surrendered."



Universalism vs. cultural relativism

The UDHR enshrines universal rights that apply to all humans equally, whichever geographical location, state, race or culture they belong to.

Proponents of cultural relativism argue for acceptance of different cultures, which may have practices conflicting with human rights.

For example female genital mutilation occurs in different cultures in Africa, Asia and South America. It is not mandated by any religion, but has become a tradition in many cultures. It is considered a violation of women's and girl's rights by much of the international community, and is outlawed in some countries.

Universalism has been described by some as cultural, economic or political imperialism. In particular, the concept of human rights is often claimed to be fundamentally rooted in a politically liberal outlook which, although generally accepted in Europe, Japan or North America, is not necessarily taken as standard elsewhere.

For example, in 1981, the Iranian representative to the United Nations, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, articulated the position of his country regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by saying that the UDHR was "a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition", which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law. The former Prime Ministers of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, and of Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad both claimed in the 1990s that Asian values were significantly different from western values and included a sense of loyalty and foregoing personal freedoms for the sake of social stability and prosperity, and therefore authoritarian government is more appropriate in Asia than democracy. This view is countered by Mahathir's former deputy:

“              To say that freedom is Western or unAsian is to offend our traditions as well as our forefathers, who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustices.           ”

—A Ibrabim in his keynote speech to the Asian Press Forum title Media and Society in Asia, December 2, 1994

and by Singapore's opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, who states that it is racist to assert that Asians do not want human rights.

An appeal is often made to the fact that influential human-rights thinkers, such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, have all been Western and indeed that some were involved in the running of Empires themselves.

Cultural relativism is a self-detonating position; if cultural relativism is true, then universalism must also be true. Relativistic arguments tend to neglect the fact that modern human rights are new to all cultures, dating back no further than the UDHR in 1948. They also don't account for the fact that the UDHR was drafted by people from many different cultures and traditions, including a US Roman Catholic, a Chinese Confucian philosopher, a French zionist and a representative from the Arab League, amongst others, and drew upon advice from thinkers such as Mahatma Gandhi.

Michael Ignatieff has argued that cultural relativism is almost exclusively an argument used by those who wield power in cultures which commit human rights abuses, and that those whose human rights are compromised are the powerless. This reflects the fact that the difficulty in judging universalism versus relativism lies in who is claiming to represent a particular culture.

Although the argument between universalism and relativism is far from complete, it is an academic discussion in that all international human rights instruments adhere to the principle that human rights are universally applicable. The 2005 World Summit reaffirmed the international community's adherence to this principle:

“              The universal nature of human rights and freedoms is beyond question.               ”

—2005 World Summit,

State and non-state actors

Companies, NGOs, political parties, informal groups, and individuals are known as non-State actors. Non-State actors can also commit human rights abuses, but are not generally subject to human rights law other than under International Humanitarian Law, which applies to individuals.  Also, certain national instruments such as the Human Rights Act 1998 (UK), impose human rights obligations on certain entities which are not traditionally considered as part of government ("public authorities").

Multinational companies play an increasingly large role in the world, and are responsible for a large number of human rights abuses. Although the legal and moral environment surrounding the actions of governments is reasonably well developed, that surrounding multinational companies is both controversial and ill-defined. Multinational companies' primary responsibility is to their shareholders, not to those affected by their actions. Such companies may be larger than the economies of some the states within which they operate, and can wield significant economic and political power. No international treaties exist to specifically cover the behavior of companies with regard to human rights, and national legislation is very variable. Jean Ziegler, Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on the right to food stated in a report in 2003:

“              the growing power of transnational corporations and their extension of power through privatization, deregulation and the rolling back of the State also mean that it is now time to develop binding legal norms that hold corporations to human rights standards and circumscribe potential abuses of their position of power.    ”

—Jean Ziegler

In August 2003 the Human Rights Commission's Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights produced draft Norms on the responsibilities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights. These were considered by the Human Rights Commission in 2004, but have no binding status on corporations and are not monitored.



Legal issues

Human rights vs. national security

With the exception of non-derogable human rights (international conventions class the right to life, the right to be free from slavery, the right to be free from torture and the right to be free from retroactive application of penal laws as non-derogable), the UN recognises that human rights can be limited or even pushed aside during times of national emergency – although

“              the emergency must be actual, affect the whole population and the threat must be to the very existence of the nation. The declaration of emergency must also be a last resort and a temporary measure           ”

Rights that cannot be derogated for reasons of national security in any circumstances are known as peremptory norms or jus cogens. Such United Nations Charter obligations are binding on all states and cannot be modified by treaty.

Examples of national security being used to justify human rights violations include the Japanese American internment during World War II, Stalin's Great Purge, and the actual and alleged modern-day abuses of terror suspects rights by some western countries, often in the name of the War on Terror.

Human rights violations

Human rights violations occur when any state or non-state actor breaches any part of the UDHR treaty or other international human rights or humanitarian law. In regard to human rights violations of United Nations laws. Article 39 of the United Nations Charter designates the UN Security Council (or an appointed authority) as the only tribunal that may determine UN human rights violations.

Human rights abuses are monitored by United Nations committees, national institutions and governments and by many independent non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International, International Federation of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, World Organisation Against Torture, Freedom House, International Freedom of Expression Exchange and Anti-Slavery International. These organisations collect evidence and documentation of alleged human rights abuses and apply pressure to enforce human rights laws.

Only a very few countries do not commit significant human rights violations, according to Amnesty International. In their 2004 human rights report (covering 2003), the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Costa Rica are the only (mappable) countries that did not (in the opinion of Amnesty International) violate at least some human rights significantly.

There are a wide variety of databases available which attempt to measure, in a rigorous fashion, exactly what violations governments commit against those within their territorial jurisdiction.[citation needed] An example of this is the list created and maintained by Prof. Christian Davenport at the Kroc Institute – University of Notre Dame.

Wars of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide, are breaches of International humanitarian law and represent the most serious of human rights violations.

When a government closes a geographical region to journalists, it raises suspicions of human rights violations. Seven regions are currently closed to foreign journalists:

Currently debated rights

Events and new possibilities can affect existing rights or require new ones. Advances of technology, medicine, and philosophy constantly challenge the status quo of human rights thinking.

Environmental rights

There are two basic conceptions of environmental human rights in the current human rights system. The first is that the right to a healthy or adequate environment is itself a human right (as seen in both Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, and Article 11 of the San Salvador Protocol to the American Charter of Human Rights).  The second conception is the idea that environmental human rights can be derived from other human rights, usually – the right to life, the right to health, the right to private family life and the right to property (among many others). This second theory enjoys much more widespread use in human rights courts around the world, as those rights are contained in many human rights documents.

The onset of various environmental issues, especially climate change, has created potential conflicts between different human rights. Human rights ultimately require a working ecosystem and healthy environment, but the granting of certain rights to individuals may damage these. Such as the conflict between right to decide number of offspring and the common need for a healthy environment, as noted in the tragedy of the commons.  In the area of environmental rights, the responsibilities of multinational corporations, so far relatively unaddressed by human rights legislation, is of paramount consideration.

Environmental Rights revolve largely around the idea of a right to a livable environment both for the present and the future generations.

Future generations

In 1997 UNESCO adopted the Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generation Towards the Future Generation. The Declaration opens with the words:

“              Mindful of the will of the peoples, set out solemnly in the Charter of the United Nations, to 'save succeeding generations from the scourge of war' and to safeguard the values and principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and all other relevant instruments of international law.   ”

—Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generation Towards the Future Generation

Article 1 of the declaration states "the present generations have the responsibility of ensuring that the needs and interests of present and future generations are fully safeguarded." The preamble to the declaration states that "at this point in history, the very existence of humankind and its environment are threatened" and the declaration covers a variety of issues including protection of the environment, the human genome, biodiversity, cultural heritage, peace, development, and education. The preamble recalls that the responsibilities of the present generations towards future generations has been referred to in various international instruments, including the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (UNESCO 1972), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (UN Conference on Environment and Development, 1992), the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (World Conference on Human Rights, 1993) and a number of UN General Assembly resolutions relating to the protection of the global climate for present and future generations adopted since 1990.[99]

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) rights

LGBT rights

LGBT rights are rights that relate to sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

In 77 countries, homosexuality remains a criminal offense, punishable by execution in seven countries. The decriminalization of private, consensual, adult sexual relations, especially in countries where corporal or capital punishment is involved, remains one of the primary concerns of LGBT human rights advocates. Other issues include but are not limited to: government recognition of same-sex relationships, LGBT adoption, sexual orientation and military service, immigration equality, anti-discrimination laws, hate crime laws regarding violence against LGBT people, sodomy laws, anti-lesbianism laws, and equal age of consent for same-sex activity.

A global charter for LGBT rights has been proposed in the form of the 'Yogyakarta Principles', a set of 29 principles whose authors say apply International Human Rights Law statutes and precedent to situations relevant to LGBT people's experience. The principles were presented at a United Nations event in New York on November 7, 2007, co-sponsored by Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

The principles have been acknowledged with influencing the French proposed UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity, which focuses on ending violence, criminalization and capital punishment and does not include dialogue about same-sex marriage or right to start a family.  The proposal was supported by 67 of the United Nations' 192 member countries, including all EU nations and the United States. An alternative statement opposing the proposal was initiated by Syria and signed by 57 member nations, including all 27 nations of the Arab League as well as Iran and North Korea.


Although both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights emphasize the importance of a right to work, neither of these documents explicitly mention trade as a mechanism for ensuring this fundamental right. And yet trade plays a key role in providing jobs.

Some experts argue that trade is inherent to human nature and that when governments inhibit international trade they directly inhibit the right to work and the other indirect benefits, like the right to education, that increased work and investment help accrue. Others have argued that the ability to trade does not affect everyone equally—often groups like the rural poor, indigenous groups and women are less likely to access the benefits of increased trade.

On the other hand, others think that it is no longer primarily individuals but companies that trade, and therefore it cannot be guaranteed as a human right.[citation needed] Additionally, trying to fit too many concepts under the umbrella of what qualifies as a human right has the potential to dilute their importance. Finally, it is difficult to define a right to trade as either "fair"or "just" in that the current trade regime produces winners and losers but its reform is likely to produce (different) winners and losers.


There is no current universal human right to water, binding or not, enshrined by the United Nations or any other multilateral body. In November 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a non-binding comment affirming that access to water was a human right:

“              the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.        ”

—United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

This principle was reaffirmed at the 3rd and 4th World Water Councils in 2003 and 2006. This marks a departure from the conclusions of the 2nd World Water Forum in The Hague in 2000, which stated that water was a commodity to be bought and sold, not a right. There are calls from many NGOs and politicians to enshrine access to water as a binding human right, and not as a commodity.

Crime and Punishment

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the "right to life”. According to many Human Rights activists, the death penalty violates these rights. The United Nations has called on retentionist states to establish a moratorium on capital punishment with a view to its abolition. States which do not do so face considerable moral and political pressure. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. Countries have argued that "enhanced interrogation methods", which amount to torture, are needed for national security. Human rights activists have also criticized some methods used to punish criminal offenders. For example, corporal punishment is regarded by some as a violation of human rights. An example is caning, used in Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore, and considered by Amnesty International to be cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. In Mexico, life imprisonment without parole is also considered to be cruel and unusual punishment. Other practices, such as police brutality and impunity for human rights violators are also seen as human rights issues.

Foetal rights

Foetal rights are the legal or ethical rights of human foetuses. The term is used most often in the context of the abortion debate, as the basis for an argument in support of the pro-life stance.




Reproductive rights

Reproductive rights are rights relating to reproduction and reproductive health. The World Health Organisation defines reproductive rights as follows:

“              Reproductive rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.  ”

—World Health OrganisationReproductive rights were first established as a subset of human rights at the United Nation's 1968 International Conference on Human Rights. The sixteenth article of the resulting Proclamation of Teheran states, "Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children."

The exact meaning of the term "reproductive rights" is the subject of heated debate. While some argue that they include the right to control one's reproductive functions, the right to quality reproductive healthcare, and the right to education and access or even a right to abortion,  others contend that a subjective right to have access to abortion does not exist even in countries where abortion is legal.

Reproductive rights may also be understood to include education about contraception and sexually transmitted infections, and freedom from coerced sterilization and contraception, protection from gender-based practices such as female genital cutting (FGC) and male genital mutilation (MGM).