Human rights are inherent to all humans, regardless of their nationality, race, gender, religion, language, or sexual orientation. The concept of human rights may not be new, but it’s gone through significant changes over time. In the past, only the rights of privileged groups of people were respected. In 1948, the newly-formed United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This codified the necessity of human rights for all. International law, national constitutions, and other conventions support and expand on the UDHR. What kinds of human rights exist?
Some theories help us understand where the concept of current-day human rights comes from. “Natural rights” are a very old philosophical concept. Related to natural law, natural rights refer to rights that are universal and inalienable. They are not related to any government or culture. By being human, a person is entitled to their natural rights. That’s where we get the concept of universal human rights.
Another example of human rights categorization is the distinction between positive rights and negative rights. The state must provide access to positive rights, like food, housing, education, and healthcare. Negative rights refers to the freedom from certain things, like slavery, torture, and suppression. It’s the state’s role to ensure these violations do not occur. In the “three generations” framework of human rights law, which has most impacted Europe, negative rights are first generation, while positive rights are part of the second and third generations.
Economic, social, and cultural rights
The UDHR and other documents lay out five kinds of human rights: economic, social, cultural, civil, and political. Economic, social, and cultural rights include the right to work, the right to food and water, the right to housing, and the right to education. Documents like the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which was established in 1976, protect these rights. Conventions like the Convention on the Rights of the Child safeguard the economic, social, and cultural rights of specific groups. As with all types of human rights, the state’s responsibility is to protect, promote, and implement economic, social, and cultural rights. Specific examples in this category include:
- The right to work in a safe environment for a fair wage
- The right to access medical care, including mental health care
- The right to accessible education
- The right to adequate food, clothing, and housing
- The right to affordable sanitation and clean water
- The right to take part in cultural life
- The right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress
- The right to social security
Civil and political rights
Civil and political rights include articles from the first part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They state that people must be allowed to participate freely in civil and political life without facing repression or discrimination. While economic, social, and cultural rights are framed as rights a person is entitled to, most civil and political rights are about protection from certain things, like torture and slavery. Documents like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols outline rights such as:
- The right to life, which is violated by actions like death by torture, neglect, and use of force
- The right to freedom of expression, which is violated by restricting access to ideas and limiting press freedom
- The right to privacy, which is violated by intruding on a person’s sexual life or personal data
- The right to asylum, which is violated by deporting someone to a country where their lives are at risk
- The right to a fair trial and due process, which is violated by a court that’s not impartial and excessive delays
- The right to freedom of religion, which is violated when someone is punished for following their beliefs or forced to adopt another religion
- The right to freedom from discrimination, which is violated when traits like race, gender, religion, etc are used as justification for actions like being fired from a job.
Human rights: what will the future look like?
In the decades since the UDHR, the scope of human rights has not changed significantly. Should the scope be modified? The UDHR, the International Covenants, and other documents serve as the cornerstones of human rights, but human rights should not be limited to documents. The world is changing due to technology, climate change, and scientific developments. Are the entities responsible for defining and protecting human rights keeping up? It isn’t necessary to completely tear down our old understanding of human rights. Instead, society should be open to refining what kinds of human rights there are and how they apply practically.