What are human rights?

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

– Article 1, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Charter of the United Nations requires that all member states “promote and encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

In order to provide a common understanding of these rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. In simple language, it describes the rights shared by all human beings, and sets “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.

Legal force

In the years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its principles of have been elaborated and given greater legal force through the negotiation of a series of international treaties, notably the:

However, there remained a number of disagreements between countries, notably about the relative importance of different types of rights.

Universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated

In 1993, the nations of the world came together in Vienna to reaffirm their commitment to human rights, and to find more effective ways of working together to put the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into practice. One of the major achievements of the Vienna Declaration was that it managed to move the international debate beyond this impasse and renew the focus on realising the ideals of the Universal Declaration.

The Vienna Declaration affirmed the equal importance of all human rights, declaring them to be universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.

Universal: It is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Indivisible: All rights are considered equal and as such there is no hierarchy of rights. Economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights are all equally important.

Interdependent and interrelated: The enjoyment of one human right often depends on the ability to freely exercise other human rights. For example, the right to education cannot be fully realised if gender, racial or other forms of discrimination limit access to education. Equally, the right to food or the right to the highest attainable standard of health depend to a large extent on the capacity of affected communities to organise themselves (freedom of association) and to call attention to inefficiency, corruption or discriminatory practices in the provision of services (freedom of expression).