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What are Human Rights?

Why are Human Rights Important?

Human Rights Characteristics

Where do Human Rights Come From?

Who is Responsibile for Uholding Human Rights?

How do Rights Become Law?

Q: What are Human Rights?

ANSWER: Human rights are standards that allow all people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice, and peace. Every person has these rights simply because they are human beings. They are guaranteed to everyone 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. Human rights are essential to the full development of individuals and communities.

Many people view human rights as a set of moral principles that apply to everyone. Human rights are also part of international law, contained in treaties and declarations that spell out specific rights that countries are required to uphold. Countries often incorporate human rights in their own national, state, and local laws.

Q: Why are Human Rights Important?

ANSWER: Human rights reflect the minimum standards necessary for people to live with dignity. Human rights give people the freedom to choose how they live, how they express themselves, and what kind of government they want to support, among many other things. Human rights also guarantee people the means necessary to satisfy their basic needs, such as food, housing, and education, so they can take full advantage of all opportunities. Finally, by guaranteeing life, liberty, equality, and security, human rights protect people against abuse by those who are more powerful.

According to the United Nations, human rights:

“Ensure that a human being will be able to fully develop and use human qualities such as intelligence, talent, and conscience and satisfy his or her spiritual and other















Human Rights Characteristics...



Q: Where do Human Rights come from?

ANSWER: The modern human rights era can be traced to struggles to end slavery, genocide, discrimination, and government oppression. Atrocities during World War II made clear that previous efforts to protect individual rights from government violations were inadequate. Thus was born the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as part of the emergence of the United Nations (UN).

The UDHR was the first international document that spelled out the “basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy.” The declaration was ratified without opposition by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

When it was adopted, the UDHR was not legally binding, though it carried great moral weight. In order to give the human rights listed in the UDHR the force of law, the UN drafted two treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The division of rights between these two covenants is artificial, reflecting the global ideological divide during the Cold War. Though politics prevented the creation of a unified treaty, the two covenants are interconnected, and the rights contained in one covenant are necessary to the fulfillment of the rights contained in the other. Together, the UDHR, ICCPR, and ICESCR are known as the International Bill of Human Rights. They contain a comprehensive list of human rights that governments must respect, protect, and fulfill.


Human Rights Outlined in the
International Bill of Rights

  • The right to equality and freedom from discrimination
  • The right to life, liberty, and personal security
  • Freedom from torture and degrading treatment
  • The right to equality before the law
  • The right to a fair trial
  • The right to privacy
  • Freedom of belief and religion
  • Freedom of opinion
  • Right of peaceful assembly and association
  • The right to participate in government
  • The right to social security
  • The right to work
  • The right to an adequate standard of living
  • The right to education
  • The right to health
  • The right to food and housing

Q: Who is Responsible for Upholding Human Rights?

ANSWER: Under human rights treaties, governments have the primary responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights.  However, governments are not solely responsible for ensuring human rights.  The UDHR states:

“Every individual and every organ of society … 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.”

This provision means that not only the government, but also businesses, civil society, and individuals are responsible for promoting and respecting human rights.

When a government ratifies a human rights treaty, it assumes a legal obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights contained in the treaty. Governments are obligated to make sure that human rights are protected by both preventing human rights violations against people within their territories and providing effective remedies for those whose rights are violated. Government parties to a treaty must do the following:

Respect Protect Fulfill

Governments must not deprive people of a right or interfere with persons exercising their rights.

For example, governments can:

  • Create constitutional guarantees of human rights.
  • Provide ways for people who have suffered human rights violations by the government to seek legal remedies from domestic and international courts.
  • Sign international human rights treaties.

Governments must prevent private actors from violating the human rights of others.

For example, governments can:

  • Prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses, such as crimes of domestic violence.
  • Educate people about human rights and the importance of respecting the human rights of others.
  • Cooperate with the international community in preventing and prosecuting crimes against humanity and other violations.

Governments must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.

For example, governments can:

  • Provide free, high-quality public education.
  • Create a public defender system so that everyone has access to a lawyer.
  • Ensure everyone has access to food by funding public assistance programs.
  • Fund a public education campaign on the right to vote.

In 1945, the U.S. ratified the United Nations Charter, which established the United Nations. 
Photo: The signing of the UN Charter, 1945.

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act provides protection for children against child labor in the U.S.
Photo: Protest against child labor, 1901

The “New Deal” laws of the 1930s established the foundation of the modern welfare system in the U.S.
Photo: Depression era breadline, 1930

Q: How do Rights Become Law?



document stating standards or principles, but which is not legally binding     


legally binding agreement between two or more countries


formal process by which a country agrees to be bound by the terms of a treaty


the exception that States make to a treaty (e.g. provisions within the treaty the government does not accept)

ANSWER: International human rights law provides an important framework for guaranteeing the rights of all people, regardless of where they live. International human rights law is contained in many different types of documents, including treaties, charters, conventions, and covenants. Despite the different official names, these documents are all considered treaties and have the same effect under international law: countries that ratify a treaty are legally obligated to protect the rights it describes.

The human rights treaty process usually begins at the United Nations or a similar international body. Legal and subject matter experts might first create a draft of the treaty. After the draft is written, the UN or other body will arrange a meeting between representatives of interested countries to negotiate the final terms, or content, of the treaty. This can be a lengthy process if large numbers of countries want to participate in the drafting process. Non-governmental organizations are sometimes allowed to offer recommendations during some of the stages of the drafting process. After the negotiating countries agree on a final text of the treaty, the treaty is opened for ratification by countries that want to become parties to it.

Countries have different methods for acceding to or ratifying treaties. For the United States to become a party to a treaty, the president must first sign it, and then present it to the Senate, where two-thirds of the senators must vote to ratify it. Through ratification, a country agrees to be legally bound by the terms of the treaty.

Countries that ratify treaties are allowed to enter reservations to those instruments. Reservations are statements made by a country that “modify the legal effect of certain provisions of the treaty.” Entering a reservation allows a government to agree to most of a treaty, while excluding or limiting parts that might be controversial or unconstitutional in its own country. Many countries have entered reservations to the major human rights treaties, which can limit the effectiveness of the treaties in protecting people against abuses committed by their governments.



  • Declaration of Independence.
  • International Human Rights in a Nutshell by Thomas Buergenthal, Dinah Shelton and, David Stewart. (St. Paul: West-Group, 2002). 
  • NESRI. “Government Obligations Under Human Rights Standards.”
  • Public International Law in a Nutshell by Thomas Buergenthal, Sean D. Murphy.  (St. Paul: Thompson/West, 2007). 
  • UN Charter.
  • UN. OHCHR. “International Human Rights Law.”
  • UN. OHCHR. “What are Human Rights?”
  • UN.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • United Nations Cyber School Bus. “Understanding Human Rights.”
  • UDHR. “Drafting and Adoption: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
  • United States Senate. “Treaties.”
  • Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.


  • RESPECT © United Nations Photo # 84215 (Signing of UN Charter in San Francisco, June 1945)
  • PROTECT © U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, digital ID: ppmsca.06591 (Protest against child labor)
  • FULFILL © Flickr Creative Common, Flickr user Desposyni (cc: by-nc-sa) (Depression-era breadline)