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Human Rights Toolkit

Download the complete Human Rights Toolkit

  • What Are Human Rights?
  • Why Are Human Righs Important?
  • Who Is Responsible for Upholding Human Rights?
  • Human Rights and International Law
  • Government Obligations
  • Where Do Human Rights Come From?
  • How Do Rights Become Law?
What Are Human Rights?
  • The rights everyone has simply because they are a human being.
  • A set of standards that protect the dignity and freedom of individuals.
  • The foundation of equality, justice, and peace.
  • Essential to the full development of individuals and communities.
  • Guaranteed to everyone without distinction as to race, color, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.

Many people view human rights as a set of moral principles that apply to everyone. The signers of the Declaration of Independence had this concept in mind when they wrote:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Human rights are also part of international law, contained in treaties or declarations that spell out specific rights or in customary international law.

Why Are Human Righs Important?

Every person benefits from human rights. Human rights give people the freedom to choose how they wish to live, how they wish to 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 that they can take full advantage of all the opportunities available. Finally, human rights protect people against abuse by the more powerful, guaranteeing their life, liberty, and safety.

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 needs."

Who Is Responsible for Upholding Human Rights?

International human rights law describes the rights that people possess and assigns responsibility for ensuring those rights. The government (State or State Party) is primarily responsible for protecting and promoting human rights. International human rights treaties are binding on governments, who must then ensure that those human rights are protected in their country. However, governments are not the only ones responsible for ensuring human rights. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): “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.”

Human Rights and International Law

International human rights law includes rights that derive, generally, from three sources:

Treaty-based International Law: The majority of international human rights law is defined by legally binding treaties or conventions. Governments (States) that ratify such treaties agree to uphold the rights that the treaties describe. States that do not ratify are not legally bound by the treaty, although they may be bound to protect the rights enshrined in customary international law or peremptory norms as described below.

Customary International Law: These are laws that have become binding upon States due to widespread practice and acceptance over time by a significant number of States who follow them out of a sense of legal obligation, even though the law or norm is not written into a law or a treaty.

Peremptory Norms (Jus Cogens): These are norms that are accepted and recognized by the international community as a whole and are binding on all States, without exception, whether or not the State has signed and ratified a treaty. States must comply with these norms, which include the prohibition of slavery, war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and torture.

Government Obligations

Once States sign a human rights treaty, they have a legal obligation not to take actions that would violate the treaty. Upon ratification or accession, States have the legal obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights contained in the treaty. Many human rights are owed by governments to all people within their territories, while certain human rights are owed by governments to a particular group of people - for example, the right to vote in elections is only owed to citizens of that country. Governments are obligated to make sure that human rights are protected by both preventing human rights violations against persons within their territories and providing effective remedies for persons whose rights are violated.

Where Do Human Rights Come From?

The modern expression of human rights can be traced to struggles to end slavery, to guarantee the equal rights of women and minorities, and to protect people against oppression by their government. At the end of World War II, the desire to ensure that people’s human rights were not dependent on the government they lived under led to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 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 by the General Assembly on 10 December 1948.

The U.S. played a leading role in the creation of the UDHR as chair of the Human Rights Commission and one of the eight nations charged with drafting the document. The Declaration was not technically binding, though it is now recognizes as customary international law. In order to give the human rights listed in the UDHR the force of law, the UN drafted two Covenants, 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 conventions is artificial, a reflection of the global ideological divide during the Cold War. Though politics prevented the creation of a unified treaty, the two covenants are of equal importance 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 Rights. They contain a comprehensive list of human rights that governments must respect and promote.

How Do Rights Become Law?

International human rights law is contained in many different kinds of documents, including treaties, charters, conventions, and covenants. Despite the different official names, all of these documents are considered treaties and have the same effect under international law. Countries that ratify or accede to a treaty are legally required to protect the rights it describes.

For example, when the United States wants 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. Other countries have different methods for ratifying a treaty, but the end result is the same. Ratification or accession means that a country agrees to be legally bound by the terms of the treaty.

Countries that ratify treaties are frequently allowed to enter reservations. Reservations are statements made by a state 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 their 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.