Human rights

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Human rights are those rights that all people have (or should have, or are believed to have) as humans.

Unfortunately, no consensus can be reached as to what constitutes human rights. Many non-Western countries have said that trying to impose Western concepts of human rights (such as freedom of religion or political rights) is an act of colonialism. Instead, many of them say that Western ideology does not give enough thought to rights such as clothing, stability, and work.

While almost every country in the world has signed onto the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many of them do not live up to it.

To a large extent, human rights have become a political football in the field of international relations. In particular, the United States and China trade accusations of human rights abuses on a yearly basis.[1][2]


The concept of human rights emerged from Enlightenment-era thinkers' (and revolutionaries) ideas about "natural rights" and the "rights of man." This was mainly a reaction to absolutist monarchism, the divine right of kings, and religious oppression. The inviolability of the human body became a central concept in human rights, especially after Voltaire's campaign to overturn the verdict against Jean Calas, the French Calvinist framed for murder.[3][note 1]

French revolution and American Bill of Rights[edit]

While some states (notably Virginia) passed declarations of rights prior to 1789, the first attempt to pass a "canon" of human rights was made almost simultaneously in the US and France with the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the CitizenWikipedia" of August 1789 and the (slightly later) American Bill of Rights (i.e. the first ten amendments to the US constitution) which became law by 1791 after being approved by Congress in September of 1789. To a large degree, all subsequent declarations of human rights (as well as many constitutions) draw significant inspiration from either or both of those declarations.[note 2]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights[edit]

Given that different cultures give differing weights to what is or is not a human right, the United Nations set forth to reach consensus and, in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of the 56 participating countries, there were no dissenters, although there were eight abstentions.

There are 30 'Articles',[4] although not each of these directly equates to a right. In brief — and heavily paraphrased — the rights are:

  1. The right to equality and dignity[5]
  2. The right to equality before the law[6]
  3. The right to life, liberty, and security of person[7]
  4. No one should be held in slavery[8]
  5. No one shall be tortured[9]
  6. The law should accept that you are a person[10]
  7. Equal protection before the law[11]
  8. The right to effective remedy when rights are violated[12]
  9. Protection against arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, or exile[13]
  10. The right to equality before the law and to an impartial hearing[14]
  11. The right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty[15]
  12. The right to privacy and to protection against defamation[16]
  13. Freedom of movement[17]
  14. The right of asylum[18]
  15. The right to nationality[19]
  16. The right to marry, protection against forced marriage[20]
  17. The right to own property, individually or jointly[21]
  18. Freedom of religion[22]
  19. Freedom of opinion and expression[23]
  20. The right to peaceful assembly[24]
  21. The right to participate in democratic government[25]
  22. The right to a reasonable standard of living and social participation[26]
  23. The right to intellectual property[27]
  24. The right to live in an ordered society[28]

Objections to the UDHR[edit]

Naturally, this attempt to reach consensus has its critics. In brief, these can be summed up as

  • Objections to freedom of religion. This is counter to some religious beliefs - "thou shall not suffer a witch to live", for example.
  • Objections to gender equality - again, often on religious grounds.
  • Objections by libertarians about the social contract - to quote "Enforcement of one person's economic, social, or cultural rights necessarily involves forcing others to relinquish their property, or to use it in a way prescribed by the enforcers."[29]
  • The lack of the inclusion of the right to refuse to kill - a stance taken by Amnesty International.
  • Unschoolers object to the right to an education, saying that it impinges on their right to bring up their children as they see fit (even though a right to education does not mean one is forced to receive a state education, only that they have the right to should they choose to exercise that right).
  • Objections based on national sovereignty. (Translation: "United Nations, you are not the boss of us!") While this objection is perhaps the most transparently childish, it (or its undeclared implementation) is also perhaps the most effective, given that any sort of real enforcement action by/on behalf of the UN must be approved by the Security Council, and the right of permanent members of that body to exercise a veto on any of its resolutions means that many nations are effectively shielded from the possibility of being required to comply with the UDHR or other international obligations.
  • Objections to property rights by communists, as well as many socialists and anarchists. Prominent anarchist activist Pierre-Joseph ProudhonWikipedia coined the famous slogan Property is theft!Wikipedia.
  • Objections to intellectual property by some libertarians, both on the left and on the right. On the left, Richard Stallman claims that the term íntellectual property is a "seductive mirage",[30] while on the right, prominent libertarian lawyer Stephan KinsellaWikipedia argues that IP is incompatible with other property rights.[31]

Furthermore, totalitarians, both on the right and on the left as well as their apologists, are opposed to pretty much every human right, listed or not. Anarchists, on the other hand, tend to be more divided on the subject, with some of them denouncing the failure of governments to uphold them and others believing that the concept of human rights has no objective reality behind it and ultimately serves to justify the state's power — and if the state can grant rights, it can then take them away whenever they please.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. See also Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt. (Review by Gordon S. Wood and lecture on the book.)
  2. Though the second amendment is almost entirely unique to the US.