Concepts and Definitions in Studying Human Rights

  • Concepts for Studying Human Rights in Latin America
  • A brief history of human rights

    Definition and Types

    [This is a secondary, not a primary, source.] Rights that belong to an individual as a consequence of being human. They refer to a wide continuum of values that are universal in character and in some sense equally claimed for all human beings. The concept of human rights is based on the idea that each person has worth and dignity, and thus deserves certain basic freedoms. When these freedoms are recognized, each individual can enjoy safety, security, and the ability to make many decisions about his or her life.The origins of the concept of human rights are usually agreed to be found in the Greco-Roman natural-law doctrines of stoicism, which held that a universal force pervades all creation and that human conduct should therefore be judged according to the law of nature, and in the jus gentium (“law of nations”), in which certain universal rights were extended beyond the rights of Roman citizenship. These concepts taught more of duties than rights, however, and allowed for slavery and serfdom.

    Human rights can be classified into three main types: (1) rights of personal integrity, (2) civil liberties, and (3) social and economic rights. Rights of personal integrity involve rights to personal safety and freedom. These include freedom from slavery, torture, and unreasonable imprisonment. Civil liberties are the rights of each person to express beliefs through words and actions. These rights include freedoms of speech, association, thought, conscience, and religion. Other civil liberties include the right to vote and run for office, and the right to marry and have a family. Social and economic rights involve basic human needs and rights of development. These include the right to food, shelter, medical care, and education; and the right to work and to form labor unions.

    Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

    Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
    Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
    Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
    Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
    Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
    Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
    Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
    Now, therefore,

    The General Assembly
    Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
    Article 1
    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 2
    Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
    Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
    Article 3
    Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.
    Article 4
    No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
    Article 5
    No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
    Article 6
    Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
    Article 7
    All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
    Article 8
    Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
    Article 9
    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
    Article 10
    Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair, and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
    Article 11
    1. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.
    2. No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
    Article 12
    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
    Article 13
    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.
    2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
    Article 14
    1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
    2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
    Article 15
    1. Everyone has the right to a nationality.
    2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
    Article 16
    1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
    2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
    3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
    Article 17
    1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
    2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
    Article 18
    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
    Article 19
    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
    Article 20
    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
    2. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
    Article 21
    1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
    2. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
    3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
    Article 22
    Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
    Article 23
    1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
    2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
    3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
    4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
    Article 24
    Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
    Article 25
    1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
    2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
    Article 26
    1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
    2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
    3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
    Article 27
    1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
    2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
    Article 28
    Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
    Article 29
    1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
    2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
    3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
    Article 30
    Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein
    rights that belong to an individual as a consequence of being human. They refer to a wide continuum of values that are universal in character and in some sense equally claimed for all human beings.

    Role of the United Nations

    Treaties. United Nations positions on human rights establish principles that can help to shape laws and practices within countries. The UN may also adopt treaties to give legal force to its positions. Human rights treaties are usually drafted by the UN Commission on Human Rights and adopted by the UN General Assembly.

    In 1966, the UN adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. These treaties give legal protection to many rights outlined in the Universal Declaration. Since then, treaties have addressed such issues as the treatment of prisoners, the status of refugees, women's rights, and the rights of the child.

    Relief and other assistance. Sometimes, a country is unable to provide for the most basic human rights. In such cases, UN relief efforts provide food, shelter, medical supplies, and other support.

    In its early years, the UN Commission on Human Rights focused mainly on responding to human rights abuses. Today, the commission emphasizes education and other assistance to create governmental structures that can prevent human rights abuses. Today, many nations benefit from UN aid in the form of educational programs and technical specialists. Specialists include legal and other experts who oversee elections or provide training of prison officials and police officers.

    Monitoring. UN committees called treaty bodies monitor international enforcement of specific human rights treaties. When the UN suspects violations, it may appoint a group or individual to study and report on the situation. UN reports can expose a problem, which can then lead to international pressure on a government to resolve that problem with UN assistance.

    Trade and diplomatic measures. Sometimes, a government systematically violates human rights. Such governments may refuse to cooperate with UN diplomatic efforts to protect human rights. In rare cases, the UN may recommend sanctions (penalties) against an offending country. During sanctions, other nations restrict trade and diplomatic relations with the country.

    Sanctions can be effective, but they may be slow to work. In 1962, the UN advised sanctions against South Africa in response to apartheid, a governmental system of racial segregation and discrimination. In 1991, after years of sanctions and other pressures, the South African government repealed the last apartheid laws. Many critics argue, however, that sanctions can harm a country's civilian population without bringing about the desired change in its governmental practices.

    Peacekeeping. Human rights violations may become widespread in times of civil unrest and in armed conflicts between regions. When regional governments cannot maintain order, the UN may approve military presence in an area. Normally, the UN sends peacekeeping troops with the consent of the opposing parties. In 1999, the people of the disputed territory East Timor voted for independence in a UN-sponsored election. Anti-independence militias then began a campaign of violence against the East Timorese. With the approval of Indonesia's government, the UN sent troops to restore order.

    Criminal trials. In many conflicts, military leaders use human rights violations against civilians as a strategy of war. In the 1990's, the UN responded to many of these abuses by organizing trials of war criminals in Rwanda and in areas of the former Yugoslavia.

    Roles of other organizations. Regional governmental bodies, such as the Arab League, the Council of Europe, the Organization of African Unity, and the Organization of American States, often play an important role in protecting human rights within a region. In some of these bodies, systems exist specifically to provide such protection.

    Independent organizations, such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch, help to influence public opinion and legal standards worldwide. They play a crucial role in calling attention to human rights abuses. For example, investigations by Amnesty International exposed the problem of Argentine "disappearances" in the 1970's and early 1980's. During that period, thousands of opponents of Argentina's military dictatorship vanished, probably murdered by authorities. These findings led to further UN study of the problem. Founded on May 28, 1961 and still headquartered in London, AI seeks to inform public opinion about violations of human rights, especially the abridgments of freedom of speech and of religion and the imprisonment and torture of political dissidents, and which actively seeks the release of political prisoners and the relief, when necessary, of their families. In 1977 Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Peter Benenson sought to establish a collective agency for the advancement of human rights. Seán MacBride (recipient of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Peace) chaired AI's International Executive Committee from 1961 to 1975. Aside from generally publicizing governmental wrongdoing in newsletters, annual reports, and background papers, AI relies strongly on the worldwide distribution of “adoption groups,” each of which, staffed by three to eight persons, takes on a limited number of cases of “prisoners of conscience” and barrages the offending government with letters of protest until the prisoners are released. The research department at London headquarters is in contact with human-rights activists and other interested parties around the world and provides the network of information for all the organization's activities. Amnesty International's logo is a burning candle wrapped in barbed wire.

    Recent Developments and Issues

    The world's societies also have contact with one another through trade; through culture; and through such media as newspapers, television, and the Internet. This connectedness, sometimes called globalization, helps spread human rights awareness throughout the world. Furthermore, violations of human rights are now more likely to be exposed, and the UN and other organizations are more capable of combating those violations.

    The so-called third generation of solidarity rights, while drawing upon, interlinking, and reconceptualizing value demands associated with the two earlier generations of rights, are best understood as a product, albeit one still in formation, of both the rise and the decline of the nation-state in the last half of the 20th century. Foreshadowed in Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized,” it appears so far to embrace six claimed rights. Three of these reflect the emergence of Third World nationalism and its demand for a global redistribution of power, wealth, and other important values: the right to political, economic, social, and cultural self-determination; the right to economic and social development; and the right to participate in and benefit from “the common heritage of mankind” (shared Earth–space resources; scientific, technical, and other information and progress; and cultural traditions, sites, and monuments). The other three third-generation rights—the right to peace, the right to a healthy and balanced environment, and the right to humanitarian disaster relief—suggest the impotence or inefficiency of the nation-state in certain critical respects.

    All six of these claimed rights tend to be posed as collective rights, requiring the concerted efforts of all social forces, to substantial degree on a planetary scale, and implying a quest for a possible utopia that projects the notion of holistic community interests. Each, however, manifests an individual as well as collective dimension. For example, while it may be said to be the collective right of all countries and peoples (especially developing countries and non-self-governing peoples) to secure a new international economic order that would eliminate obstacles to their economic and social development, so also may it be said to be the individual right of all persons to benefit from a developmental policy that is based on the satisfaction of material and nonmaterial human needs. Also, while the right to self-determination and the right to humanitarian assistance, for example, find expression on the legal as well as the moral plane, the majority of these solidarity rights tend to be more aspirational than justiciable in character, enjoying as yet an ambiguous jural status as international human rights norms.

    Thus, at various stages of modern history—following the “bourgeois” revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, the socialist and Marxist revolutions of the early 20th century, and the anticolonialist revolutions that began immediately following World War II—the content of human rights has been broadly defined, not with any expectation that the rights associated with one generation would or should become outdated upon the ascendancy of another, but expansively or supplementally. Reflecting evolving perceptions of which values, at different times, stand most in need of encouragement and protection, the history of the content of human rights also reflects humankind's recurring demands for continuity and stability.

    Legitimacy and priority

    This is not to imply that each of these three generations of rights is equally acceptable to all or that they or their separate elements are greeted with equal urgency. First-generation proponents, for example, are inclined to exclude second- and third-generation rights from their definition of human rights altogether (or, at best, to label them as “derivative”). In part this is due to the complexities that inform the process of putting these rights into action. The suggestion of greater feasibility that attends first-generation rights because they stress the absence rather than the presence of government is somehow transformed into a prerequisite of a comprehensive definition of human rights, such that aspirational and vaguely asserted claims to entitlement are deemed not to be rights at all. The most forceful explanation, however, is more ideologically or politically motivated. Persuaded that egalitarian claims against the rich, particularly where collectively espoused, are unworkable without a severe decline in liberty and quality (in part because they involve state intervention for the redistribution of privately held resources), first-generation proponents, inspired by the natural law and laissez-faire traditions, are partial to the view that human rights are inherently independent of civil society and are individualistic.

    Conversely, second- and third-generation defenders often look upon first-generation rights, at least as commonly practiced, as insufficiently attentive to material human needs and, indeed, as legitimating instruments in service to unjust domestic, transnational, and international social orders—hence constituting a “bourgeois illusion.” Accordingly, while not placing first-generation rights outside their definition of human rights, they tend to assign such rights a low status and therefore to treat them as long-term goals that will come to pass only with fundamental economic and social transformations to be realized progressively and fully consummated only sometime in the future.

    In sum, different conceptions of rights, particularly emerging conceptions, contain the potential for challenging the legitimacy and supremacy not only of one another but, more importantly, of the political–social systems with which they are most intimately associated. As a consequence there is sharp disagreement about the legitimate scope of human rights and about the priorities that are claimed among them.

    On final analysis, however, this liberty–equality and individualist–collectivist debate over the legitimacy and priorities of claimed human rights can be dangerously misleading. It is useful, certainly, insofar as it calls attention to the way in which notions of liberty and individualism can be, and have been, used to rationalize the abuses of capitalism; and it is useful, too, insofar as it highlights how notions of equality and collectivism can be, and have been, alibis for authoritarian governance. But in the end it risks obscuring at least three essential truths that must be taken into account if the contemporary worldwide human rights movement is to be objectively understood.

    People who allow or commit human rights violations sometimes claim that international standards--or their enforcement--intrude upon traditional practices within their culture. And UN treaties do protect cultural rights. However, those protections do not apply to any practice or incident that violates another person's human rights. In all parts of the world, human rights principles can be absorbed and reinforced by existing traditions within cultures.

    First, one-sided characterizations of legitimacy and priority are likely, over the long term, to undermine the political credibility of their proponents and the defensibility of their particularistic values. In an increasingly interdependent and interpenetrating global community, any human rights orientation that does not genuinely support the widest possible shaping and sharing of all values among all human beings is likely to provoke widespread skepticism. The last half of the 20th century is replete with examples.

    Second, such characterizations do not accurately mirror behavioral reality. In the real world, despite differences in cultural tradition and ideological style, there exists a rising and overriding insistence upon the equitable production and distribution of all basic values. U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear) is an early case in point. A more recent demonstration was the 1977 Law Day speech by then U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, in which he announced the U.S. government's resolve “to make the advancement of human rights a central part of our foreign policy” and defined human rights to include “the right to be free from governmental violation of the integrity of the person, . . . the right to the fulfillment of such vital needs as food, shelter, health care, and education, . . . [and] the right to enjoy civil and political liberties.” Essentially individualistic societies tolerate, even promote, certain collectivist values; likewise, essentially communal societies tolerate, even promote, certain individualistic values. Ours is a more-or-less, not an either-or, world.

    Finally, none of the international human rights instruments currently in force or proposed say anything whatsoever about the legitimacy or rank-ordering of the rights they address, save possibly in the case of rights that by international covenant are stipulated to be nonderogable and therefore, arguably, more fundamental than others (for example, freedom from arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life, freedom from torture and from inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment, freedom from slavery, freedom from imprisonment for debt). There is disagreement, to be sure, among lawyers, moralists, and political scientists about the legitimacy and hierarchy of claimed rights when they treat the problem of implementation. For example, some insist on certain civil and political guarantees, whereas others defer initially to conditions of material and corporeal well-being. Such disagreements, however, partake of political agendas and have little if any conceptual utility. As the UN General Assembly has repeatedly confirmed, all human rights form an indivisible whole.

    In short, the legitimacy of different human rights and the priorities claimed among them are a function of context. Because people in different parts of the world both assert and hon our different human rights demands according to many different procedures and practices, these issues ultimately depend on time, place, setting, level of crisis, and other circumstance. [Source: Britannica 2002 DVD Edition; World Book 2002]