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What Are Human Rights?

Human Rights are a set of rights everyone has simply because they are human.

The United Nations defines human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the document, human rights are “inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.” Experts divide up the rights in the Declaration into types: civil and political, and economic, social, and cultural rights. All the types are weighed equally in terms of importance. They include – among others – the right to life and liberty; freedom from torture and slavery; the right to work and education; and freedom of opinion and expression.

The history of human rights

In 539 BCE, King Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon. He established what can only be described as an early form of human rights, which was recorded on a clay cylinder known as the “Cyrus Cylinder.” The laws freed the slaves and granted religious and racial equality. Another human rights milestone came about in 1215 CE England. A group of barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, a document of rights like protection from illegal punishment and the right to swift justice. It wasn’t officially adopted into English law until 1297, but the signing of the Magna Carta is world-famous. It inspired other documents like the Bill of Rights in the United States.

Human rights took center stage following the trauma of World War II. The United Nations was founded in 1945 and immediately went to work. The General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a 30-article document describing basic, universal human rights. Other documents followed: The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and two Optional Protocols. Together, these documents form the International Bill of Human Rights, which has been called a Magna Carta for all humanity.

What are human rights?

According to the International Bill of Human rights, all rights fall into five categories: civil, political, economic, social, and cultural. Here are some examples of these human rights:

  • The right to life
  • The right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly
  • The right to freedom of religion
  • The right to freedom from discrimination
  • The right to marry and start a family
  • The right to due process and a fair trial
  • The right to medical care, adequate food and clean water, housing, and education
  • The right to participate in cultural life

There are many other human rights outlined in the International Bill of Human rights and international and regional treaties and constitutions, but what unites them? What is the framework that binds all human rights?

The framework of human rights

We can understand more about the spirit of human rights by looking at the principles of a human rights-based approach (HRBA). Organizations like the UN use this conceptual framework to build international cooperation and anchor human rights into a system. It’s also used in fields like public policy, schooling, medical care, and so on to make sure human rights are protected and promoted. Not every HRBA looks the same, but consistent themes help us conceptualize human rights at their core. Here’s what to remember about human rights:


This is an essential component of human rights that hasn’t always been present. Universality states that human rights belong to every human regardless of traits like sex, gender, ethnicity, etc. In documents like the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, the listed rights usually excluded groups like racial minorities and women. In the modern understanding of human rights, everyone is entitled to them.


Human rights must be applied equally. Article 7 of the UDHR addresses discrimination, stating “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” Discrimination is highlighted again in Article 23: “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.” If human rights aren’t applied equally, a just world is beyond our reach.


Are some rights more important than others? It may seem that way, but human rights are interdependent. When one human right is threatened, it has a domino effect on the others. As an example, if women aren’t paid equally, it limits their ability to access rights like education, healthcare, safe food and water, good housing, and more.


“Indivisible” means inseparable. Humans can’t be severed from their human rights. If one right is removed from a person, it threatens all their other rights. This is an important principle because many societies put people on a hierarchy where some rights are respected and others aren’t. As an example, in the United States, millions of people are prohibited from voting following a felony conviction. There are also “incompetence laws” in 39 states and Washington D.C. that let judges take away voting rights from people with mental disorders like schizophrenia. One can easily see the issues at play with these examples. Laws like these essentially say that certain rights are divisible, which goes against human rights principles.

The future of human rights

Where are human rights now? Issues like climate change, attacks on democracy, and the COVID-19 pandemic present major challenges. Duty-bearers (those responsible for promoting and protecting human rights) need to commit to real action or the future will be grim.

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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.