human rights

human rights

human rights, universal rights held to belong to individuals by virtue of their being human, encompassing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights and freedoms, and based on the notion of personal human dignity and worth. Conceptually derived from the theory of natural law and originating in Greco-Roman doctrines, the idea of human rights appears in some early Christian writers' works and is reflected in the Magna Carta (1215). The concept winds as a philosophical thread through 17th- and 18th-century European and American thought, including the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). The United Nation's Commission on Human Rights, with Eleanor Roosevelt as chair, created the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which reasserted the concept of human rights after the horrors of World War II. Human rights have since become a universally espoused yet widely disregarded concept.

Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch promote human rights and denounce human-rights abuses. In addition, such abuses around the world are monitored and documented by independent investigators ("special rapporteurs") appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, which, in turn, rebukes cited nations for their human-rights failures. (The council replaced the UN Human Rights Commission, which had been accused of protecting human-rights violators, in mid-2006; similar accusations have been leveled at the new council.) In Europe, the supranational European Court of Human Rights, established under the Council of Europe, is intended to protect individual human rights from government abuse.

The charging in 1998 by a Spanish court of former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet with human-rights violations and the 1999 British ruling that he could be extradited to Spain, as well as the indictment and arrest (2000) in Senegal of former Chadian president Hissène Habré for human-rights violations during his presidency (although charges were later dropped, he was subsequently rearrested on a Belgian warrant), were regarded as small steps forward in the international protection of human rights.

See also civil rights; feminism; gay-rights movement; war crimes.

See M. A. Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2001).

Rights that belong to an individual as a consequence of being human. The term came into wide use after World War II, replacing the earlier phrase “natural rights,” which had been associated with the Greco-Roman concept of natural law since the end of the Middle Ages. As understood today, human rights refer to a wide variety of values and capabilities reflecting the diversity of human circumstances and history. They are conceived of as universal, applying to all human beings everywhere, and as fundamental, referring to essential or basic human needs. Human rights have been classified historically in terms of the notion of three “generations” of human rights. The first generation of civil and political rights, associated with the Enlightenment and the English, American, and French revolutions, includes the rights to life and liberty and the rights to freedom of speech and worship. The second generation of economic, social, and cultural rights, associated with revolts against the predations of unregulated capitalism from the mid-19th century, includes the right to work and the right to an education. Finally, the third generation of solidarity rights, associated with the political and economic aspirations of developing and newly decolonized countries after World War II, includes the collective rights to political self-determination and economic development. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, many treaties and agreements for the protection of human rights have been concluded through the auspices of the United Nations, and several regional systems of human rights law have been established. In the late 20th century ad hoc international criminal tribunals were convened to prosecute serious human rights violations and other crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The International Criminal Court, which came into existence in 2002, is empowered to prosecute crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide, and war crimes.

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