What are Human Rights?

Human rights are universal legal guarantees protecting individuals and groups against actions and omissions that interfere with fundamental freedoms, entitlements and human dignity. Human rights law obliges Governments (principally) and other duty-bearers to do certain things and prevents them from doing others.

Some of the most important characteristics of human rights are that they:

  • Are universal—the birthright of all human beings
  • Focus on the inherent dignity and equal worth of all human beings
  • Are equal, indivisible and interdependent
  • Cannot be waived or taken away
  • Impose obligations of action and omission, particularly on States and State actors
  • Have been internationally guaranteed
  • Are legally protected
  • Protect individuals and, to some extent, groups

Human rights standards have become increasingly well defined in recent years. Codified in international, regional and national legal systems, they constitute a set of performance standards against which duty-bearers at all levels of society—but especially organs of the State—can be held accountable. The fulfilment of commitments under international human rights treaties (see annex I) is monitored by independent expert committees called “treaty bodies,” which also help to clarify the meaning of particular human rights.

Their meaning is also elaborated by individuals and expert bodies appointed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (a Geneva-based body composed of 53 United Nations Member States), known as “special procedures,” and of course through regional and national courts and tribunals. There are other human rights legal systems as well. For example, the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions and standards specifically protect labour rights, and international humanitarian law applies to armed conflicts, overlapping significantly with human rights law.

Among the rights guaranteed to all human beings under international treaties, without any discrimination on grounds such as race, colour, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, are:

  • The right to life, liberty and security of person
  • Freedom of association, expression, assembly and movement
  • The right to the highest attainable standard of health
  • Freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention
  • The right to a fair trial
  •  The right to just and favourable working conditions
  • The right to adequate food, housing and social security
  • The right to education
  • The right to equal protection of the law
  • Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence
  • Freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • Freedom from slavery
  • The right to a nationality
  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • The right to vote and take part in the conduct of public affairs
  • The right to participate in cultural life

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