When people think of Human Rights, they usually picture freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion or movement. These are indeed important rights but there are more. People are also entitled to a fair trial, security of person and property, the right to leave their country and the ability to choose which job they want to do or where they want to live. These are all considered human rights and the fact that they are all universally recognised and enforceable by international law means that everyone has them in some way or another.
The origin of human rights is disputed but most scholars agree that they can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome where the Stoics taught that people should act according to natural law. This meant that if rulers went against these laws (such as in Sophocles’ Antigone, who defied King Creon’s order not to bury her brother) they could be justly overthrown. The idea was further developed by philosophers like John Locke, who argued in his Two Treatises of Government that all rulers were bound to protect life, liberty and property.
During the nineteenth century there was much progress in social reform, such as the abolition of slavery and the extension of voting rights. But there was still a view that nations were free to do what they liked within their borders and that other countries should not interfere or raise concerns about the treatment of citizens in other states. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights changed all that in 1948 by asserting that all people have certain fundamental rights, regardless of the legal system, culture or race of their country.
Human rights are based on the principle that every individual is born free and equal in dignity and worth. They are inalienable, meaning that they cannot be taken away from a person, and interdependent and interrelated, meaning that one right cannot be fully enjoyed without the other.
They are enforceable by international agreements signed by governments and international bodies. This gives them a force which goes beyond a moral imperative to respect people’s dignity: it becomes a legal duty and a basis for holding governments accountable for the treatment of their citizens.
It is accepted that all governments should take steps to fulfil their obligation under human rights agreements. However, some do not and this has led to a worldwide movement for international organisations which monitor compliance with human rights agreements and call on governments to comply.
This is called the “rights-based approach”. It has the advantage over the religious and moral arguments for human rights, in that it recognises that most people are actually quite reasonable, and that most people will try to avoid violating other people’s personal dignity. Moreover, it is widely accepted that in signing up to international agreements, a government has not only a moral but a legal responsibility to protect its citizens’ human rights. This has proved to be a powerful motivating force, leading to great changes in the world, such as the abolition of the death penalty and the vote for women.