Q: What are Human Rights?
ANSWER: Human rights are standards that allow all people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice, and peace. Every person has these rights simply because they are human beings. They are guaranteed to everyone without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth, or another status. Human rights are essential to the full development of individuals and communities. Many people view human rights as a set of moral principles that apply to everyone. Human rights are also part of international law, contained in treaties and declarations that spell out specific rights that countries are required to uphold. Countries often incorporate human rights in their own national, state, and local laws.
Q: Why are Human Rights Important?
ANSWER: Human rights reflect the minimum standards necessary for people to live with dignity. Human rights give people the freedom to choose how they live, how they express themselves, and what kind of government they want to support, among many other things. Human rights also guarantee people the means necessary to satisfy their basic needs, such as food, housing, and education, so they can take full advantage of all opportunities. Finally, by guaranteeing life, liberty, equality, and security, human rights protect people against abuse by those who are more powerful.
According to the United Nations, human rights:
“Ensure that a human being will be able to fully develop and use human qualities such as intelligence, talent, and conscience and satisfy his or her spiritual and other”
Human Rights Characteristics
UNIVERSAL – Human rights belong to all people
INALIENABLE – Human rights cannot be taken away
INTERCONNECTED – Human rights are dependent on one another
INDIVISIBLE – Human rights cannot be treated in isolation
NON-DISCRIMINATORY – Human rights should be respected with prejudice
Q: Where do Human Rights come from?
ANSWER: The modern human rights era can be traced to discrimination, struggles to end slavery, genocide, and government oppression. Atrocities during World War II made clear that previous efforts to protect individual rights from government violations were inadequate. Thus was born the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as part of the emergence of the United Nations (UN).
The UDHR was the first international document that spelled out the “basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy.” The declaration was ratified without opposition by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
When it was adopted, the UDHR was not legally binding, though it carried great moral weight. To give the human rights listed in the UDHR the force of law, the UN drafted two treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The division of rights between these two covenants is artificial, reflecting the global ideological divide during the Cold War. Though politics prevented the creation of a unified treaty, the two covenants are interconnected, and the rights contained in one covenant are necessary to the fulfillment of the rights contained in the other. Together, the UDHR, ICCPR, and ICESCR are known as the International Bill of Human Rights. They contain a comprehensive list of human rights that governments must respect, protect, and fulfill.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (abbreviated)
- The right to equality and freedom from discrimination
- Freedom from torture and degrading treatment
- The right to equality before the law
- The right to a fair trial
- The right to privacy
- Freedom of belief and religion
- Freedom of opinion
- Right of peaceful assembly and association
- The right to participate in government
- The right to social security
- The right to work
- The right to an adequate standard of living
- The right to education
- The right to health
- The right to food and housing
Q: Who is Responsible for Upholding Human Rights?
Under human rights treaties, governments have the primary responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights. However, governments are not solely responsible for ensuring human rights. The UDHR states:
“Every individual and every organ of society … shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”
This provision means that not only the government, but also businesses, civil society, and individuals are responsible for promoting and respecting human rights.
When a government ratifies a human rights treaty, it assumes a legal obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights contained in the treaty. Governments are obligated to make sure that human rights are protected by both preventing human rights violations against people within their territories and providing effective remedies for those whose rights are violated. Government parties to a treaty must do the following:
RESPECT – Governments must not deprive people of a right or interfere with persons exercising their rights. For example, governments can:
- Create constitutional guarantees of human rights.
- Provide ways for people who have suffered human rights violations by the government to seek legal remedies from domestic and international courts.
- Sign international human rights treaties.
PROTECT – Governments must prevent private actors from violating the human rights of others. For example, governments can:
- Prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses, such as crimes of domestic violence.
- Educate people about human rights and the importance of respecting the human rights of others.
- Cooperate with the international community in preventing and prosecuting crimes against humanity and other violations.
FULFILL – Governments must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. For example, governments can:
- Provide free, high-quality public education.
- Create a public defender system so that everyone has access to a lawyer.
- Ensure everyone has access to food by funding public assistance programs.
- Fund a public education campaign on the right to vote.
The right to life, liberty, and personal security
EXERCISE: What Does It Mean to Be Human?
Objective: To define what it means to be human and to relate human rights to human needs
Time: 10-15 minutes
Materials: Flipchart paper, markers
The flow of the session:
- Prepare. Write the words “HUMAN RIGHTS” at the top of the flip chart paper. Below the words, draw the outline of a human being.
- Brainstorm. Ask participants to brainstorm which qualities define a human being and write the words or symbols inside the outline. For example, “intelligence” or “sympathy.” Next ask the participants what do they think is needed to protect, enhance, and fully develop these qualities of a human being. List their answers outside the outline, and ask participants to explain them. For example, “education”, “friendship,” or “a loving family.”
- Discuss. Discuss the following questions as a large group:
- What does it mean to be fully human? How is that different from just “being alive” or “surviving”?
- Based on this list, what do people need to live in dignity?
- What happens when a person or government attempts to deprive someone of something necessary to human dignity?
- What would happen if you had to give up one of these human necessities?
- Explain. Explain that everything inside the circle relates to human dignity and the wholeness of being human. Everything written around the outline represents what is necessary to support human dignity. Human rights are based on these necessities. Read these sentences (you can use more) from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and explain that this document sets the standard for how human beings should behave towards one another so that everyone dignity is respected:
…Recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.
Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
You can use the information from the Q&A session from above to educate participants on the basics of human rights.
Why did I choose this tool?
It is important for trainers who train civic engagement to know the basic information about human rights and also to reflect it on themselves. Have you as a trainer or as a person, in general, felt a violation of human rights in your upbringing, family, or work? Going through this article can be a meaningful exercise for trainers to learn more about themselves and transfer it to other learners.