What Do Human Rights Mean?

Human rights are a set of norms that the United Nations defines and enforces. The rights are often quite broad, and there are many different political movements that would like to see their main concerns categorized as human rights.

Whether they are based on theological beliefs or legal enactment, human rights have become a major feature of international law. They appeal to a deep, human desire for freedom and equality.


It is a common observation that people everywhere require the realization of diverse values and capabilities to live in peace and prosperity. When governments deny their citizens these essential rights, it is a source of oppression and suffering that can only be corrected through redressing domestic and international legal injustices.

A human rights movement will not succeed if its agenda appears to be exclusively a leftist political program. To gain broad societal support, human rights policies must include views from the center and right as well.

Philosophers coming to human rights theory from moral philosophy often assume that they must mirror moral rights, but it is not clear how to get from these general moral principles to the specific rights found in contemporary declarations and treaties. A more promising approach is to view human rights as norms of a highly useful political practice that serves critical national and international interests. This approach is known as a political conception of human rights.


The concept of human rights has a remarkably short history. The term entered common use only after World War II and the founding of the United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 codified the ideals of human rights in a legally binding document that states, as a legal matter, that governments must respect these rights.

There is no one answer to the question of how human rights come into being. Some theorists have suggested that human rights are a result of their enactment by national and international law; others believe they arise from some kind of innate moral status – an idea that goes back to ancient traditions, including natural laws derived from St. Thomas Aquinas.

Still other human rights theories are grounded in social or psychological phenomena – for example, that human beings develop moral behavior over time (associated with Hume) or that people accept rules from legitimate authority for their own security and economic advantage in exchange for freedom and protection – a view known as the social contract theory.


Human rights are a set of fundamental expectations that individuals have for each other. People can agree on the existence of a list of these rights even if they disagree about whether there is an abstract underlying right that generates this list or about how the list should be constituted.

Most of the rights in the body of international human rights law are liberty or claim rights, and a significant proportion of them have both a positive and a negative complexion in terms of the duties that a human being owes to others with respect to these rights. These rights have been characterized by scholars as either a right to life or a right to fundamental social, economic, and cultural goods.

Some philosophers have argued that human rights should be limited to the protection of individual freedoms, but others have suggested that they extend more broadly to protect groups such as women, children, minorities, and migrants. Some have argued that human rights extend to non-State actors, such as companies, NGOs, and political parties.


Human rights are norms that aspire to protect all people, everywhere from severe political, legal and social abuses. The concept encompasses a wide range of freedoms and values, including dignity, fairness, equality and independence. It is a universal concept, covering everyone from children to the elderly and from men to women.

It is a moral concept, grounded in the moral values of dignity and fairness, backed by the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also a legally binding concept, as it is contained in over two dozen global treaties and many regional agreements.

However, there are some who want to go further and conceive human rights as something that is not dependent on legal enactment at the national or international level. These are the ‘political conceptions of human rights’ that John Rawls discussed in his work, The Law of Peoples. These are based on the idea that it is possible to identify a set of important political roles for human rights and that those political rights can be recognized by states as obligations of them.

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