Human Rights: A Global Vision
Around the world, peoples and nations have recognized the importance of human rights as a fundamental part of social justice. But what are human rights? For most people, human rights are a set of values as much as a set of laws. For activists, they can be a set of tools or a vision. Human rights also express themselves as the global social justice movement for our time.
The idea of human rights, which is the simple but profound concept that each of us has basic rights by virtue of our humanity alone, was forcefully brought to the global stage in response to the atrocities of World War II. It was an attempt to issue a resounding no to the question of whether a government could impose atrocities on its own people, such as the genocide in Nazi-Germany, based on its right to sovereignty.
The foundation of human rights is the notion that every person should live in equality, dignity and freedom. Towards this end, the global community recognized that it had to go far beyond simply prohibiting genocide, but instead develop a vision which protected the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all people. From this understanding emerged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- the most translated document in the world -- that embodies core human rights values and standards to this day.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflects core human rights principles such as that human rights must be universal (for everyone), protected without discrimination, equitable, and indivisible (governments cannot protect some rights but not others).
A Legal Framework
The idea of human rights spawned an entire area of international law with a diverse set of human rights treaties and declarations addressing a range of issues, such as discrimination, torture, access to health care, the rights of migrants and more. Human rights law provides standards and mechanisms to protect those rights necessary to ensure equality, dignity and freedom. In the arena of economic and social rights, human rights law includes:
- The Right to Education
- The Right to Health
- The Right to Food
- The Right to Work with Dignity
- The Right to Social Security
- The Right to Housing
Major human rights treaties include: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention Against Torture, the International Convention on the Protection of All Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Family, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Human rights law also includes rights that are about the process of how government runs, in particular the right to participation, transparency and accountability. Read more on Basic Principles of the Human Rights Framework.
The idea of human rights also led to the creation of a system to monitor and oversee how governments around the world comply with human rights standards. While the United Nations has several functions, one if its core functions is promoting and protecting human rights around the world. The human rights system includes treaty bodies, which are expert bodies that monitor how countries are complying with the treaties they have ratified (agreed to), Special Rapporteurs (independent experts that visit countries to do human rights reports, (see the trailer to More than a Roof documenting the first mission by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing to the United States), the Human Rights Council (which reviews the full human rights record of every government, read the NESRI report for the Universal Periodic Review of the United States), and other bodies which monitor, advise and review.
A Movement with a Vision
But human rights have always been more than an idea or a legal system. Even before the formal United Nations system was created, movements around the world had embraced the inherent worth of every person as a central part of their vision. The abolitionist, women’s, racial justice, and labor movements, just to name a few, have always taken a position that human beings deserve to be treated with respect and live in dignity because they are human. This history infused the post-World War II development of the human rights system with the values of people's movements. In turn, 20th and 21st century movements have further embraced human rights as a core vision. While human rights movements have global visions, most are locally anchored and emerge out of concrete abuses and struggles of communities that are marginalized and most often poor. What these movements have in common is their belief in a universal vision of justice and understanding that their struggles are bound up in other human rights struggles around the world. They also have in common a set of values which include a belief that basic rights must be universal, irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability, documentation status or any other status, and also comprehensive, protecting civil liberties, civil rights, and economic and social justice. In this way, they are part of a large umbrella movement seeking social justice through human rights.