Human Rights

What Rights Are Human Rights?

The basic idea of human rights is very general. A right plausibly attributed to divine commands may give it secure status at the metaphysical level, but legal enactment at the national and international levels gives them far more practical security.

It is generally agreed that human rights are inalienable, though it is debated whether they are goal-like or not (see Donnelly 2003). The four defining features of human rights are as follows.


Human rights are norms that aspire to protect people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 and later supplemented by specialized international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocols, prescribes basic standards.

Those standards include respect for the dignity and equality of all individuals, regardless of their social status, culture, or beliefs, as well as a sense of responsibility for others’ welfare. The idea that some fundamental rights are inherent in all individuals is not a Western invention but goes back to ancient traditions and codes of justice.

Some philosophers have worried that human rights prescribes universal standards that do not take into account the many cultural differences among the world’s peoples and their various practices, traditions, religions, and levels of economic development. For example, a standard list of human rights would not adequately address issues related to women such as domestic violence and reproductive choice.


The concept of human rights evolved out of a series of events, influences and debates. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the first sets of laws in ancient Mesopotamia (circa 1754 BCE) included provisions for fair treatment and property rights. Ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato developed concepts of justice, freedom and equality.

The Roman legal system based many of its laws on rational ideas derived from nature, as did the law of the Middle Ages that became the basis for modern-day constitutional systems. But the concept really came into its own in the wake of World War II, with the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Some people argue that human rights are not merely a matter of enactment in national and international laws; that they are also an innate or inherent characteristic of humans. This is a political conception of human rights and it leads to the assertion that certain kinds of serious human rights violations can trigger permissible intervention by other countries (for an overview see Gilabert 2009). This approach is sometimes called natural law theory.


The development of human rights arose from the twin observations that people need the realization of many diverse values or capabilities and that people are deprived of these values or capabilities by social as well as natural forces. Thus the idea emerged that people have natural rights and that a government’s legitimacy rests on respect for these natural rights.

These rights are inalienable, indivisible and interdependent. They are indivisible because all people have them and no one can voluntarily give them up. They are interdependent because the realization of one set of rights enables the enjoyment of another.

Some scholars have defended political conceptions of human rights (for example Rawls’ 1999 Law of Peoples), in which the main roles that human rights play are to protect people from severe political, legal and economic abuses. However, others have argued that human rights are based on a moral or ethical belief about the essential value of successful agency and autonomy.


For a person to demand that others respect her freedom and well-being, she logically has to also recognize the equal claims of all other people to these same things. This is the idea behind human rights, and it is the basis for a wide range of specialized UN treaties including those covering development, peace and security, humanitarian assistance and economic and social affairs.

These rights are indivisible and interrelated; they are intrinsic to a person’s very existence, though some may be suspended or restricted in particular circumstances such as a criminal conviction. Specialized human rights treaties address the needs of disadvantaged or subordinated groups such as women, racial or ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and children.

To justify a list of human rights it is necessary to show that they represent serious threats to fundamental interests, values or norms and thus deserve the highest priority (on constructing justifications for rights see Nickel 2007). However, some philosophers have proposed that there is only one abstract underlying right that generates a list of specific rights such as freedom from slavery or access to education.

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