The Concept of Human Rights

“Human rights” is one of the most important concepts in our modern era. Activists, governments, and corporations use it to draw on a collective understanding that all people deserve certain rights and freedoms. No matter who a person is, where they’re from, what they believe, or how they live, everyone has rights that cannot be taken away. Where do these rights come from and who protects them? What’s considered a “right?”

The early origins of human rights

Human society didn’t always believe in universal human rights the way we do now. The first recorded example of anything close to human rights comes from Cyrus the Great, a Persian king. When he conquered Babylon, he established a set of basic rights for everyone. We can find those rights, which include freedom from slavery and freedom of religion, written on a clay cylinder now housed in the British Museum far from its original home. “Natural law” was also discussed in ancient Greece and Rome. Natural law eventually expanded to the idea of “natural rights.” The Magna Carta, which became an official part of English law in 1297, represents a major milestone for rights like due process and equality under the law. Centuries later, the Bill of Rights from the United States lay another road map to modern human rights.

These early days of human rights more often than not excluded certain groups. Many early advocates of basic rights did not believe they applied equally to everyone. When documents like the Bill of Rights talked about freedom and dignity, they meant privileged groups such as land-owning white men. Even as the concept of rights expanded to include more people, exclusion continued. The right to vote is a good example. In the United States, the 19th Amendment (1920) gave women the right to vote, but racial discrimination and violence hampered the ability of both Black men and women to exercise this right. True voting rights for all did not become reality until 45 years later.

Human rights in the current era

Our modern understanding of human rights first entered the scene after World War II. The new United Nations formed a committee in 1945 and wrote a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This formalized the concept of universal human rights, as well as the role governments must play in protecting and providing them. Other documents followed, such as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and Convention on the Rights of the Child. Many constitutions and regional charters include rights from international instruments, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a fair trial. These instruments are necessary to enforce human rights law.

The protection of human rights is irrevocably woven into peace and development. According to entities like the United Nations, sustainability, peace, and freedom are impossible without human rights. Linking basic rights to security and stability in this way is a major feature of our modern understanding of human rights.

What do human rights protect?

What’s considered a “human right?” The UN breaks them down into five types in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Economic, social, and cultural rights include:

  • The right to fair wages with equal pay for equal work
  • The right to a decent living
  • The right to safe and healthy working conditions
  • The right to take part in cultural life
  • The right to benefit from scientific progress
  • The right to free primary education
  • The right to accessible higher education
  • The right to the “highest attainable standard” of physical and mental health

Civil and political rights include:

  • The right to life
  • The right to freedom from slavery
  • The right to a trial in a reasonable time frame
  • The right to equality before the law
  • The right to freedom of thought
  • The right to freedom of expression
  • The right to freedom of religion
  • The right to peaceful assembly
  • The right to privacy

Who is responsible for protecting human rights?

We’ve described human rights as a concept and what those rights include, but whose job is it to ensure those rights are protected? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “every individual and every organ of society” must play a role. That includes teaching about human rights, promoting them, and establishing measures that protect them. Individuals and businesses bear responsibility, but the government has the primary duty.

When a government ratifies a human rights treaty, they are agreeing to do three things: respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. To respect human rights, governments cannot take away (or interfere with) a human right. The government must also protect rights and stop private actors (like corporations) from violating them. Lastly, to fulfill human rights, a government must provide education, food, housing, access to healthcare, and so on.

Learn more about human rights in an online course.

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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.