Education Centre


What are Human Rights?

In their barest codified form, human rights are lists of things that governments should not do to their citizens (e.g., torture or enslave them) and lists of things that they should do for their citizens (e.g., educate them and give them a fair trial).

However, human rights are contested territory, so they tend to be defined in more than one way. For many people the doctrine of human rights goes beyond law and forms a fundamental moral basis for regulating contemporary global order.

Where did the idea of human rights originate from?

Human rights ideas come from way back, over 300 years. From the time of the Magna Carta emerged concepts of the “Rights of Man“ that sought to limit royal power. In the period leading up to the French revolution, Denis Diderot elaborated on the idea of “natural rights.“ Prior to the American revolution Thomas Paine argued for the Rights of Man as eternal and “inalienable”.

The idea of intrinsic rights is ultimately based on the belief that value is inherent in the structure of the universe, and is thus connected to theories of natural law. Natural law or natural moral order derives from on the one hand a) religious precepts of common understandings of justice and the belief that moral behavior is a set of objectively valid prescriptions and b) secular forms of human rights as derivatives of the notion of universal human dignity. Either way human rights stand above the laws of any individual nation.

As conceptualized in codified modern form, human rights are minimum standards of legal, civil, political freedom as well as economic, cultural and social obligations that are provided for universally via the United Nations, or regionally through such bodies as the Council of Europe as well as nationally through legislation. In the modern era, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets the global standard. The declaration was the first international legal effort to limit the behaviour of states and press upon them duties to their citizens. Regional provisions include for example the European Convention on Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. Nationally, the Declaration’s provisions are incorporated into the local laws of many countries which makes for more effective implementation where states have developed and functioning institutions. An example is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Some people conflate human rights with the concept of civil rights, but the two are different in foundation even though they overlap in the ethical provisions. Civil Rights are rights held by individuals and groups derived from the social contract – the common consent of society at large to the rules under which members live. Civil rights derive from society rather than God or nature.

What are some of the challenges and contentions in the domain of human rights?

a) The foundation of human rights in western individualist philosophy has been a source of contention especially that i) they are founded on the separation of person from person, not on the relations or community of people, and ii) that truth cannot be defined by one reality alone, the western. Other cultures have their own visions of truth.

b) Although the problem of relativism persists for some, there has been widespread acceptance of the idea of human rights. The biggest challenge remains the implementation deficit; how to protect or enforce rights in an anarchic international world, or a world where there is no global government.