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What are human rights? – Definitions

What are human rights? In ancient times, all societies employed some system of basic rights and privileges. In more modern times, select groups enjoyed rights based on factors like gender, race, and wealth. In most people’s understanding, the concept of universal human rights first emerged with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Today, most human rights organizations use this document as their foundation, but specific definitions can vary slightly depending on what area or issue that organization focuses on. Here’s how 10 organizations define human rights:

The United Nations

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 the right to life and liberty; freedom from torture and slavery; the right to work and education; and freedom of opinion and expression.

Amnesty International

Operating globally, Amnesty International was founded in 1961 in the UK. The organisation works to shine a light on human rights abuses and urges governments to comply with international laws and standards. This organization defines human rights as  “fundamental rights and freedoms that belong to every single one of us, anywhere in the world.” These rights must be recognized as universal, indivisible, interdependent, and inalienable. Human rights are not just abstract concepts – they are protected by laws – so AI works to ensure those laws are upheld.

Human Rights Watch

An international NGO founded in 1978, Human Rights Watch advocates for vulnerable populations like refugees and children. They also conduct research. HRW defines human rights as “basic rights and freedoms to which everyone is entitled on the basis of their common humanity.” Human rights apply at all times to all people around the world. Following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, HRW categorizes those rights as civil, political, economic, social, and cultural.


Led by Oxfam International, Oxfam is a confederation of 19 independent charities focusing on poverty. The organization was founded in 1942. On their website, Oxfam asserts that “respect for human rights will help lift people out of poverty and injustice, allow them to assert their dignity and guarantee sustainable development.” They continue by saying that everyone has the right to a livelihood, basic services, to be safe from harm, to be heard, and to be treated as equal.

International Rescue Committee

The International Rescue Committee works in more than 40 countries responding to humanitarian crises. They focus on “high-impact, cost-effective” solutions that take into account unique barriers faced by women and girls. Their areas of focus encompass what they view as human rights including economic well-being, health, education, empowerment, and safety.

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International Federation for Human Rights

An international non-governmental organization, the International Federation of Human Rights has existed since 1922. It’s comprised of 184 organizations in 112 countries. Acting on regional, national, and international levels, FIDH supports member and partner organizations in addressing human rights abuses. It defines human rights – civil, political, economic, social, and cultural – as they’re laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They also campaign for the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.


Greenpeace is a global network of 27 independent regional and national Greenpeace organizations. They use “non-violent creative action” in working towards a greener and more peaceful world. Greenpeace defines human rights as equal treatment of all people, granting everyone the ability to live in safety and freedom with protection by the government. This includes for example the right to life, health, and food. Greenpeace focuses on how climate change and poor environmental management affects these rights in the present and future.


ActionAid was founded as a charity organization in 1972, and in the 1990’s, they adjusted to a human rights-based approach to development. Their head office is based in Johannesburg, South Africa with hubs in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. ActionAid defines human rights as “standards that allow all people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice, and peace.” The only qualifications anyone needs is to be a human being.

Save the Children

Since 1919, Save the Children has worked to improve the lives of children. A global organization, Save the Children focuses on the rights contained within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This legally-binding international agreement establishes rights such as life, survival and development; protection from neglect, abuse, and violence; and a good education.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization founded in 1920. Their Human Rights Program is dedicated to making sure the United States government upholds international human rights laws and the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Current issues include criminal justice, immigration, the death penalty, and privacy.

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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.