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 Human Rights Ethics

After WWII, the United Nations formed as a result of the Holocaust. After such a horrific event, world leaders knew it was necessary to formally enshrine universal human rights. The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The 30 articles outline the basic rights and freedoms of all people. The UDHR, the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights form the International Bill of Rights. What are the ethics – or guiding principles – of human rights? There are five:

#1 Universality

Arguably the most significant piece to come out of the UDHR’s creation is the universality of human rights. Universality means that human rights apply everywhere to everyone regardless of their country, culture, and status. While the UDHR established universal human rights as the standard, universality is not a new concept. For thousands of years, philosophers, religious leaders, and others have believed in the inherent dignity of human beings. They often referred to “natural rights.” Beliefs about what specific rights people deserve because of their inherent dignity have changed over time leading up to the UDHR.

#2 Equality

Equality is an essential part of human rights ethics and the foundation of all human rights. One cannot separate equality from the concept of rights. In the UDHR’s preamble, the very first line reads: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal [emphasis added] and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Equality means discrimination is unacceptable. No person should be favored over others (or disadvantaged) because of their race, ethnicity, color, gender, age, language, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or any other status. As long as discrimination exists, human rights are being violated.

How does the world become equal? First, there must be equity. Equity recognizes that certain groups have been privileged while others were discriminated against. To achieve equality, historically-disadvantaged groups need to be centered and essentially “paid back” the resources/education/etc they’ve been cut off from. This levels the field for everyone.

#3 Participation

The ability to participate in the processes and decisions that affect a person’s well-being and life is the third human rights ethic. That includes political and public participation, which is essential to promoting democratic governance, economic development, social inclusion, and more. Human rights are never fulfilled by limiting participation to a select few. What seems like a good policy for one group might bring harm to another. When everyone participates, these issues become known and addressed, preventing injustice. Participation is linked to several rights, like freedom of expression, the right to assembly, and the right to information.

There are many obstacles to participation, including education. Without a good education, it can be very difficult for someone to be taken seriously, whether they want to join a school board or run for public office. Barriers to participation can involve direct and indirect discrimination, which is when a policy applies to everyone but ends up disadvantaging select groups. Society must consistently examine these barriers and work to dismantle them.

#4 Interdependence

Human rights are interrelated and interdependent. That means we can’t pick and choose which human rights matter and which ones don’t. They are all necessary for people to thrive and live in peace and safety. As an example, the right to freedom from discrimination affects someone’s access to education and healthcare. The right to education and information affects the right to take part in the government. When one human right is violated, it has a domino effect on other rights. Recognizing the interdependence of rights is essential for those responsible for protecting and promoting them. Governments can’t ignore violations because they believe s rights aren’t that important compared to others.

#5 The rule of law

The rule of law is the last human rights ethic. In the UN system, it’s a principle of governance that holds governments, institutions, and people accountable to human rights laws. Whenever there’s a violation of human rights, the abuser must be held accountable according to international human rights standards. Rule of law is an essential ethic because it turns universal rights from an idea into reality. It’s the primary enforcement mechanism. Equality, fairness, participation, and transparency are all important in the law-making process and enforcement of the law.

The rule of law is necessary for international peace, security, economic development, and social progress. Without laws, there’s no check on human rights abuses or a framework to ensure rights like education, healthcare, etc are provided to everyone. Like human rights in general, the five ethics – universality, equality, participation, interdependence, and the rule of law – are knitted together and can’t be fulfilled without each other.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.