What are Human Rights?

Human rights are commonly understood as being those rights which are inherent in the mere fact of being human. The concept of human rights is based on the belief that every human being is entitled to enjoy her/his rights without discrimination. Human rights differ from other rights in two respects. Firstly, they are characterised by being:

  •  Inherent in all human beings by virtue of their humanity alone (they do not have,e.g., to be purchased or to be granted);
  •  Inalienable (within qualified legal boundaries); and
  •  Equally applicable to all.

Secondly, the main duties deriving from human rights fall on states and their authorities or agents, not on individuals.

One important implication of these characteristics is that human rights must themselves be protected by law (‘the rule of law’). Furthermore, any disputes about these rights should be submitted for adjudication through a competent, impartial and independent tribunal, applying procedures which ensure full equality and fairness to all the parties, and determining the question in accordance with clear, specific and pre-existing laws, known to the public and openly declared.

The idea of basic rights originated from the need to protect the individual against the (arbitrary) use of state power. Attention was therefore initially focused on those rights which oblige governments to refrain from certain actions. Human rights in this category are generally referred to as ‘fundamental freedoms’. As human rights are viewed as a precondition for leading a dignified human existence, they serve as a guide and touchstone for legislation.

The specific nature of human rights, as an essential precondition for human development, implies that they can have a bearing on relations both between the individual and the state, and between individuals themselves. The individual-state relationship is known as the ‘vertical effect’ of human rights. While the primary purpose of human rights is to establish rules for relations between the individual and the state, several of these rights can also have implications for relations among individuals. This socalled ‘horizontal effect’ implies, among other things, that a government not only has an obligation to refrain from violating human rights, but also has a duty to protect the individual from infringements by other individuals. The right to life thus means that the government must strive to protect people against homicide by their fellow human beings. Similarly, Article 17(1) and (2) of the ICCPR obliges governments to protect individuals against unlawful interference with their privacy. Another typical example is the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which obliges states to prevent racial discrimination between human beings. State obligations regarding human rights may involve desisting from certain activities (e.g.,torture) or acting in certain ways (e.g., organising free elections).Related image

Historical antecedents

The origins of human rights may be found both in Greek philosophy and the various world religions. In the Age of Enlightenment (18th century) the concept of human rights emerged as an explicit category. Man/woman came to be seen as an autonomous individual, endowed by nature with certain inalienable fundamental rights that could be invoked against a government and should be safeguarded by it. Human rights were henceforth seen as elementary preconditions for an existence worthy of human dignity.

Before this period, several charters codifying rights and freedoms had been drawn up constituting important steps towards the idea of human rights. During the 6th Century, the Achaemenid Persian Empire of ancient Iran established unprecedented principles of human rights. Cyrus the Great (576 or 590 BC – 530 BC) issued the Cyrus cylinder which declared that citizens of the empire would be allowed to practice their religious beliefs freely and also abolished slavery. The next generation of human rights documents were the Magna Charta Libertatum of 1215, the Golden Bull of Hungary (1222), the Danish Erik Klipping’s Håndfaestning of 1282, the Joyeuse Entrée of 1356 in Brabant (Brussels), theUnion of Utrecht of 1579 (The Netherlands) and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. These documents specified rights which could be claimed in the light of particular circumstances (e.g., threats to the freedom of religion), but they did not yet contain an all-embracing philosophical concept of individual liberty. Freedoms were often seen as rights conferred upon individuals or groups by virtue of their rank or status.

In the centuries after the Middle Ages, the concept of liberty became gradually separated from status and came to be seen not as a privilege but as a right of all human beings. Spanish theologists and jurists played a prominent role in this context. Among the former, the work of Francisco de Vitoria (1486-1546) and Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566) should be highlighted. These two men laid the (doctrinal) foundation for the recognition of freedom and dignity of all humans by defending the personal rights of the indigenous peoples inhabiting the territories colonised by the Spanish Crown.

The Enlightenment was decisive in the development of human rights concepts. The ideas of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), one of the fathers of modern international law, of Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694), and of John Locke (1632-1704) attracted much interest in Europe in the 18th century. Locke, for instance, developed a comprehensive concept of natural rights; his list of rights consisting of life, liberty and property. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) elaborated the concept under which the sovereign derived his powers and the citizens their rights from a social contract. The term human rights appeared for the first time in the French Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen(1789).

The people of the British colonies in North America took the human rights theories to heart. The American Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776 was based on the assumption that all human beings are equal. It also referred to certain inalienable rights, such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas were also reflected in the Bill of Rights which was promulgated by the state of Virginia in the same year. The provisions of the Declaration of Independence were adopted by other American states, but they also found their way into the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution. The French Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen of 1789, as well as the French Constitution of 1793, reflected the emerging international theory of universal rights. Both the American and French Declarations were intended as systematic enumerations of these rights.

The classic rights of the 18th and 19th centuries related to the freedom of the individual. Even at that time, however, some people believed that citizens had a right to demand that the government endeavour to improve their living conditions. Taking into account the principle of equality as contained in the French Declaration of 1789, several constitutions drafted in Europe around 1800 contained classic rights, but also included articles which assigned responsibilities to the government in the fields of employment, welfare, public health, and education. Social rights of this kind were also expressly included in the Mexican Constitution of 1917, the Constitution of the Soviet Union of 1918 and the German Constitution of 1919.

In the 19th century, there were frequent inter-state disputes relating to the protection of the rights of minorities in Europe. These conflicts led to several humanitarian interventions and calls for international protection arrangements. One of the first such arrangements was the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, which accorded special legal status to some religious groups. It also served as a model for the Minorities System that was subsequently established within the League of Nations.

The need for international standards on human rights was first felt at the end of the 19th century, when the industrial countries began to introduce labour legislation. This legislation – which raised the cost of labour – had the effect of worsening their competitive position in relation to countries that had no labour laws. Economic necessity forced the states to consult each other. It was as a result of this that the first conventions were formulated in which states committed themselves vis-à-vis other states in regard to their own citizens. The Bern Convention of 1906 prohibiting night-shift work by women can be seen as the first multilateral convention meant to safeguard social rights. Many more labour conventions were later to be drawn up by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), founded in 1919 (see II§1.D). Remarkable as it may seem, therefore, while the classic human rights had been acknowledged long before social rights, the latter were first embodied in international regulations.

The atrocities of World War II put an end to the traditional view that states have full liberty to decide the treatment of their own citizens. The signing of the Charter of the United Nations (UN) on 26 June 1945 brought human rights within the sphere of international law. In particular, all UN members agreed to take measures to protect human rights. The Charter contains a number of articles specifically referring to human rights (see II§1.A). Less than two years later, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), established early in 1946, submitted a draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The Assembly adopted the Declaration in Paris on 10 December 1948. This day was later designated Human Rights Day.

During the 1950s and 1960s, more and more countries joined the UN. Upon joining they formally accepted the obligations contained in the UN Charter, and in doing so subscribed to the principles and ideals laid down in the UDHR. This commitment was made explicit in the Proclamation of Teheran (1968), which was adopted during the first World Conference on Human Rights, and repeated in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which was adopted during the second World Conference on Human Rights (1993).

Since the 1950s, the UDHR has been backed up by a large number of international conventions. The most significant of these conventions are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These two Covenants together with the UDHR form the International Bill of Human Rights. At the same time, many supervisory mechanisms have been created, including those responsible for monitoring compliance with the two Covenants (see II§1.C).

Human rights have also been receiving more and more attention at the regional level. In the European, the Inter-American and the African context, standards and supervisory mechanisms have been developed that have already had a significant impact on human rights compliance in the respective continents, and promise to contribute to compliance in the future. These standards and mechanisms will be discussed in more detail throughout this book (see Part II).

Source : www.humanrights.is

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