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What are human rights?

by Ellen Walker

What are human rights?

Human rights are something that each person has by virtue of being human: you are born with them. Human rights are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

What are some examples of human rights?

Some examples of human rights are: the right to life, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to adequate standard of living, the right to education, the right to equality and to equal treatment under the law, freedom of information, freedom of association, accessibility for persons with disabilities, and access to justice. These are just a few. There are a lot more!

The right to education is an example of human rights

Who is supposed to protect human rights?

Human rights obligations require governments and other actors to do certain things to protect these rights, and, to refrain from doing other things, which would infringe on the rights. Traditionally (and by this we mean, in modern international law as we know it since the UN was formed in 1945) States have the primary obligation for protecting human rights. This means that they themselves have to do and not do certain things, but, that they also have to check to make sure that other parties like corporations or other actors are not abusing the human rights of individuals, groups or peoples.

Where are human rights protected? where are they written down?

Human rights are protected in various places. First, let’s talk about where they can be found at the national level. They are usually written down in national laws such as a national constitution, which itself might have a bill of rights (although you might also find your human rights in provisions other than just those in the bill of rights); in other legislation covering a range of other topics which touch on specific rights; in local laws and acts; in the policies and procedures of different State and non-State actors; in school policies; in employers’ policies – really, references to and protections of your rights will pop up in a whole range of places. Once you know what to look for, it’s surprising how many places there are where you will find one of your rights protected.

Do I have a right even if it’s not written down?

What if there’s a bad law or policy in place and it doesn’t look good- it doesn’t protect my human right and it even says something bad about my right?

Say you have brown eyes. If you get a driver’s license, it will indicate that you have brown eyes. But, you don’t need the license in order to for it to be true that you have brown eyes. Your eyes are already brown. When it says this on your driver’s license, the paper is just a reflection of a fact that’s already true. Human rights are like this – you already have them, and written laws reflect this fact.

You have a right, but, a certain law or policy in place is not reflecting or respecting this right. But good news, you have the right! Working together with other people, it is often possible to change the law or policy so that it properly reflects the right that you already have, as a human being.

Let’s talk now about international human rights standards

We were talking about where human rights are protected. They are protected at the national level in a bunch of different places. They are also protected at the international level. (And, they are also protected at the regional international level (think about the African Union, the Council of Europe, or the Inter-American System, or ASEAN). That might be confusing for now, so we’ll come back to that in future.) For now, let’s focus on how human rights are protected at international level.

General Assembly Hall at the United Nations in New York

An easy place to start, in talking about this story, of how human rights came to be protected at the international level, and in international law to be more specific, is 1945. In 1945, the United Nations was created, following on the League of Nations that had existed before it, and which, despite efforts, had failed to prevent the catastrophes of World War II. Before, in international law, international law was mostly about the relations between heads of State – like deals between kings and princes and sometimes queens. They were mostly talking about stuff like their borders, trade, what belonged to whom. What they were not talking about was about how they would each treat people under their jurisdiction, respectively. They considered that this was the business of the other one.  However, after World War II and the holocaust, in which millions of innocent people were killed, the world collectively recognized that such an attitude was no longer possible. A big change started to kick into gear: countries first of all wrote the United Nations Charter, which recognizes that human rights are the business of all peoples of the world. Countries, in other words, can no longer do whatever they want to their own citizens without other countries getting to have a say in it. Countries wrote the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (the UDHR). This wasn’t a treaty, but it was close. It was a universal declaration (well, universal in that it was written by the club of countries that formed the United Nations. Remember – many peoples and nations were still under colonization at this time. It was later adopted by all of the States that became indepdendent through decolonization processes.) It lists rights that each individual in the world has, by virtue of being human.

Now, it’s depressing that it took such a catastrophe for this recognition to occur, but in any case, it’s an example of something positive coming from sad, horrible events. It’s good to remember how precious this document is, and that really, it comes from this sort of crucible in history. In a way, the victims of World War II paid a big price for the freedoms and rights that we now have recognized internationally. It would honor their memories if everyone knew more about their own rights and how we are all are connected to those who went before us.

Eleanor Roosevelt reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But it gets better from there. After the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, countries started to want to write down international human rights standards not just in a declaration, like the UDHR, but also in actual international treaties. This is actually a radical development in international law. Now, we have human rights – how countries are supposed to treat people within their jurisdiction – written down in actual international law treaties. This is quite the shift, from when King X was talking to Queen Y about how many sheep they would trade for a parcel of land. Now, countries are talking to each other when they are writing the treaties (and it is mostly countries writing the treaties, but we’ll talk about that later) about the treatment of individuals and groups.

Accessibility for persons with disabilities is another example of human rights

There are 9 (or 10, depends how you count them) United Nations international human rights treaties. The Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was the first one – and, you can probably understand why that is the case, considering what happened in World War II. These 9 (or 10) treaties each talk about how the States that sign up to them, and who agree to implement them and be ‘bound’ by them, have to treat certain people or groups within their jurisdiction. Some of the treaties focus on specific groups: for example, we’ve got one talking specifically about women, one talking specifically about children, one talking about migrants, one talking about people who have been subject to enforced disappearance, one is talking about persons with disabilities. There are two treaties among the 9 (or 10) that sort of go together and complement each other: one of those is talking about civil and political rights, and the other one is talking about economic, social and cultural rights. Those ones apply to everyone.

Some of the same rights are included in different ones of the international human rights treaties. That’s a good thing, actually: they are mutually reinforcing.

And for the most exciting bit of news – some of the same rights are included at national level, and, at international level, in the UDHR or in the international human rights law treaties. Think about that: your same right can pop up in a lot of places.

For the international human rights law treaties, it does matter if your country agreed to be bound by that treaty, before you can claim the rights in the treaty in the international committee at the UN that watches over the implementation of that treaty. There’s one of those committees for each of the 9 treaties. (The 10th one is special. We’ll talk about that later.)

Why do we say, ‘women’s human rights’, and not, ‘women’s rights’?

We say women’s human rights because women are entitled to the same human rights as men. You’ll notice that when the drafters of the CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, wrote that treaty, they did not call it the ‘Convention on the Rights of Women’ or something like that – because, they did not want to give people the incorrect impression that women had different rights from men. Women have the same rights, as well as some specific rights that apply additionally to women, and CEDAW is instead about eliminating all forms of discrimination against women, just like the title of the treaty says. A lot of people who are working on women’s human rights will thank you if you use that term and not, women’s rights.

That’s it for now!

Hopefully, this helps to give you a bit of an introduction to your human rights: what they are, who has to do stuff to protect them, and where you can find them written down.

Enjoy your rights!

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