What is Human Rights?

Legal Definition
Human rights are moral principles or norms, which describe certain standards of human behaviour, and are regularly protected as legal rights in municipal and international law. They are commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights "to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being," and which are "inherent in all human beings" regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status. They are applicable everywhere and at every time in the sense of being universal, and they are egalitarian in the sense of being the same for everyone. They require empathy and the rule of law and impose an obligation on persons to respect the human rights of others. They should not be taken away except as a result of due process based on specific circumstances; for example, human rights may include freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture, and execution.

The doctrine of human rights has been highly influential within international law, global and regional institutions. Actions by states and non-governmental organizations form a basis of public policy worldwide. The idea of human rights suggests that "if the public discourse of peacetime global society can be said to have a common moral language, it is that of human rights." 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. The precise meaning of the term right is controversial and is the subject of continued philosophical debate; while there is consensus that human rights encompasses a wide variety of rights such as the right to a fair trial, protection against enslavement, prohibition of genocide, free speech, or a right to education, there is disagreement about which of these particular rights should be included within the general framework of human rights; some thinkers suggest that human rights should be a minimum requirement to avoid the worst-case abuses, while others see it as a higher standard.

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. Ancient peoples did not have the same modern-day conception of universal human rights. 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 European Enlightenment with such philosophers as John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, and which 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, possibly as a reaction to slavery, torture, genocide, and war crimes, as a realization of inherent human vulnerability and as being a precondition for the possibility of a just society.

Whereas 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...

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
-- Wikipedia
Legal Definition
Human Rights: An Overview

International human rights law began as a response to the horrors of war, in particular World War II, although the Geneva Conventions had begun earlier. The formation of the United Nations gave human rights international legitimacy, particularly because many nations signed the United Nations Charter, which specifically mentions human rights (Preamble, Chapter I). Since the formation of the United Nations, it has passed many agreements and resolutions binding the signatories to respect human rights. Additionally, it has set up tribunals to charge those suspected of egregious violations of human rights. Furthermore, several other organizations, created by various treaties, have come into existence. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for example, ensures that signatories of the American Convention on Human Rights abide by that treaty. The European Convention on Human Rights binds members of the Council of Europe to the human rights obligations set forth in it. The Convention specifically mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and charges all signatories with upholding the basic principles of the document. Both the European and American Conventions on human rights have international tribunals in which to bring claims of violations of human rights. Additionally, several African nations have signed the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. Many nations have ratified international human rights instruments put forward by the United Nations. Thus, many human rights instruments, tribunals, and declarations have been created since World War II, some drawing inspiration for early human rights proclamations, such as the Universal Declaration. Human rights continues to be a growing body of international law.

Human rights are "inalienable rights of all members of the human family" (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Thus, human rights are, in principle, applicable to every person, regardless of their nationality. The Universal Declaration gives an example of the substance of human rights agreements (although it is not itself a treaty, many nations have agreed to abide by its principles, and it serves as an inspiration for treaties on human rights). Specifically, the Universal Declaration calls on nations to respect the rights to life, liberty, and security (Article 3). It also states that no person should be enslaved, tortured, or deprived of the right to a trial before a "national tribunal." Thus the Declaration proclaims negative rights, whereby national governments may not engage in certain activities against persons. Positive rights are also part of the Declaration. It states that everyone should enjoy the right to an education and basic standards of living. In doing so, it calls on nations to provide for all of their citizens without discrimination. Human rights, in substance, are protections against abuses by all states, and guarantees that people shall receive benefits from states. (Henkin, L. et al., Human Rights, pg. 6 (1999)).

International human rights law, through treaties, acts upon states. Documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaim the ideals of nations aspiring to respect the human rights of people of all nations. Legally, however, these documents do not bind countries. Rather, treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provide the international legal framework to protect human rights. Under these treaties, nations agree to abide by certain restrictions on their conduct and to uphold certain freedoms and basic needs for citizens. The enforcement of human rights treaties naturally requires nations to comply with the terms of their agreements, and various approaches are used to enforce agreements. Specially appointed commissions and other bodies monitor compliance. Additionally, multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe may impose sanctions or other measures against recalcitrant states. International tribunals provide an additional avenue to ensure compliance. Individuals may also be held accountable for human rights violations if they are brought before such a tribunal and convicted. A notable example is the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was set up to charge officers of the Serbian military who had allegedly committed war crimes during the breakup of Yugoslavia. It drew precedent from the Nuremburg Tribunals. The law of human rights is therefore an international body of law of treaties and decisions from international tribunals, although many individual states may have also enacted domestic laws that protect what are traditionally thought of as human rights.

The United States is an example of a country that is both party to international agreements and has enacted its own human rights guarantees. The www.law.cornell.edu/constitution_" title="reference on Constitution of the United States" target="_self">Constitution of the United States guarantees basic freedoms, such as equal protection under the laws, to all United States citizens (Amendment XIV). Additionally, the United States has passed legislation further protecting the human rights of its citizens. A good example is civil rights legislation (Title 42, Chapter 21 of the U.S. Code). The United States is also bound by treaty obligations. It has ratified the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, is a member of the United Nations, and has signed and/or ratified other human rights agreements. A list of major human rights instruments that the United States has signed or ratified can be found here.