Human Rights

Understanding human rights

The basics you need to know about human rights

At their simplest, human rights are a number of social norms that are in place to protect individuals from one another and larger organisations, such as big businesses or the state. The idea behind them is that no one can take away another person's rights which are said to be inalienable. That means that they cannot be subject to change or altered at the whim of a government or a dictator, for example. The idea of inalienable rights took off after the calamity of the Second World War when many civilians died as well as combatants. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made under the auspices of the newly formed United Nations in 1948, and it still creates much of the legal basis for international monitoring.

How did human rights start?

The Enlightenment, which took hold in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries among intellectuals, started to enquire into the nature of the individual and his or her relationship with authority, something that in feudal times would have been administered by the local lord or king. As liberal individualism took off, so writers like John Locke and, later, Hegel and John Stewart Mill began to advocate for certain freedoms which were beyond the reach of any overlord. Mary Wollstonecraft produced a declaration specifically singling out women's rights as far back as 1792. In America, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 was widely adopted by thinkers of the age as a model for citizen rights.

Which human rights are absolute?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has signatories all over the globe and constitutes the most widespread set of human rights. That said, no right can be said to be totally absolute if it is simply ignored or the authority concerned does not consider it to be inalienable. Abuses of the rights of people are, unfortunately, widespread. That said, the right to a fair trial, to freedom of speech, the right to be free of slavery and torture and the right of religious freedom are all enshrined in this important UN declaration.

How are human rights protected?

In many countries, access to the courts is the main recourse to human rights. If you believe yours are being impinged, then your human rights should mean you can bring a complaint before the courts. These rules are often enshrined in a country's constitution. At the international level, then it is still the United Nations which is there to protect people and groups from abuses, although it does not always succeed. Organisations like Amnesty International exist to assist people suffering such violations and to monitor the activities of regimes which do not have sufficient safeguards in place.

Why do human rights still matter?

Without the concept of human rights informing legal decisions, anyone can be subject to abuses. In countries where such problems are prevalent, people usually appeal to the sort of rights others enjoy elsewhere in the world. Unless these rights are protected, many people think they will be eroded over time.

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