INTRODUCTION TO HUMAN RIGHTS

Human rights are rights of individuals in society. Every human being is entitled to have rights - legitimate, valid, justified claims - upon his or her society for certain freedoms and benefits. They are those freedoms and benefits deemed essential for individual well-being, dignity, and fulfillment, and that reflect a common sense of justice, fairness, and decency.

Human rights are universal: they belong to every human being in every human society. They do not differ with geography or history, culture or ideology, political or economic system, or stage of societal development. To call them "human" implies that all human beings have them, equally and in equal measure, by virtue of their humanity - regardless of their race, ethnic origin, religion, gender, political affiliation, wealth or poverty, occupation, talent and personal preferences.

The idea of human rights is primarily of political nature with strong moral foundation. Minimum standard of well-ordered political institutions is critical for exercise and protection of human rights. Politics is driving force behind all changes in definition of individual rights as specific abuses enter the public consciousness. However, people still have human rights even if the laws or those in power do not recognize or protect them.

Human rights are inalienable: you cannot lose these rights any more than you can cease being a human being. Human rights are indivisible: you cannot be denied a right because it is "less important" or "non-essential." Human rights are interdependent: all human rights are part of a complementary framework. For example, your ability to participate in your government is directly affected by your right to express yourself, to get an education, and even to obtain the necessities of life. Human rights are both inspirational and practical. Human rights principles hold up the vision of a free, just, and peaceful world and set minimum standards for how individuals and institutions everywhere should treat people. Human rights also empower people with a framework for action when those minimum standards are not met.

Human rights are claims upon society. They imply both individual entitlement and corresponding obligation on society. The state must develop institutions and procedures, must plan and mobilize resources as necessary to meet the claims individuals have. Political and civil rights require laws, institutions, procedures, and other safeguards against tyranny, against corrupt, immoral, and inefficient agencies or officials. Economic and social rights require taxation and spending and a network of agencies for social welfare. The idea of human rights implies also that society must provide some system of remedies to which individuals may resort to obtain benefits to which they are entitled or be compensated for their loss.

Human rights are not absolute categories. It means that each person is entitled to exercise his or her rights in a way that does not interfere with rights of other people or legitimate public interests. For example, freedom of speech does not mean that one can speak about any topic at any time and place. Freedom of press does not allow a person to intentionally publish false, harmful information about another person. However, individual rights are not subordinate to common good. In complex, democratic societies such as the United States, the primary goal is striking the proper balance between individual rights and public interest.

The idea of human rights accepts that some limitations on rights are permissible but the limitations are themselves strictly limited by law. Public emergency, national security, and public order are examples of situations that indicate important societal interests, but they cannot be lightly or loosely invoked to unnecessarily invade or violate individual rights. Limitations are permitted only to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the particular situation. However, the government may under no circumstances go so far as to invade the right to life, or implement torture, inhuman punishment, slavery, or violate freedom of thought, conscience, or religion.

Concern for human rights protection is of paramount importance in any type of society. Even in countries that take pride in their human rights record, there are areas that call for improved treatment of human rights. For example, the respect for civil and political rights has been greatly emphasized in the United States and American government is actively promoting those rights all over the world. On the other hand, the very same government does not recognize health care, work, homelessness, environmental pollution, and other social and economic concerns as human rights issues. Rather, they are viewed as mere aspirations or goals to be met someday in the distant future when they are feasible. Such approach has very serious consequences for quality of democracy in this country. Being deprived of their economic and social rights, people cannot effectively exercise their civil and political rights. For example, national wealth implies that there should be no hunger in the US. In reality, problem of hunger is very much present in this country. As a consequence, people affected by such depravation cannot be expected to actively exercise their political freedoms. Civil and political rights should not be measured by the existence of laws protecting democratic principles, but by a citizenís capability to exercise these rights. The paper right to participate in a democratic system does not guarantee inclusion in practice. While the government cannot remove all barriers to ability, it should eradicate the most basic impediments like hunger -- particularly in the richest nation in the world.

"Western" philosophic foundations of human rights are not universally accepted. Today in the world there is no general consensus about positive definitions of human rights. Bills of rights differ from nation to nation. Even in the Western world scope and exercise of human rights differ from one country to another.

In non-Western countries, observance of human rights is based on quite different premises. For example, socialist and communist countries have emphasized social-welfare rights, such as right to education, right to job, and right to health care. However, their citizens often have limited civil and political rights. In some cultures, the Western idea of human rights as individual rights is completely rejected. Emphasis on individual is viewed as egocentric, egoistic, and divisive. For example, in Islamic countries religious concerns that dominate social life have distinct primacy over individual rights. Unlike Western law, which is primarily concerned with regulating public affairs of citizens and protecting individual rights, the Islamic law seeks to regulate the entirety of human existence leaving very little room for some civil rights and individual freedoms. In some traditional societies, like Japan and India, concepts of personal loyalty and obligation have been given far more weight than individual aspirations. In those societies, self-worth and identity are viewed as stemming from groups to which the person belongs rather than from what that person has accomplished.

Learn more about human rights fundamentals by visiting the following Web sites:

Introduction to Human Rights

What Are Human Rights

Human Rights Glossary

Human Rights at Your Fingertips

Human Rights Resources and Organizations

Human Rights Research and Education

Searchable Database of Human Rights

Human Rights Internet

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