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What are human rights?

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which everyone is entitled on the basis of their common humanity. They include civil and political rights, as well as economic, social, and cultural rights.

Human rights are drawn from various cultures, religions and philosophies from around the world over many centuries.  They are in force at all times and in all places. Human rights protect everyone equally without discrimination according to race, sex, religion, political opinion or other status.

How are human rights defined?

After the Second World War, the founding countries of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which set out the fundamental rights of all people and declared them a common standard of achievement for all nations. Since then more than two dozen global treaties, as well as many regional agreements, have provided a legal foundation for human rights ideals. When a government ratifies one of these treaties, it takes on legal obligations to uphold human rights.

The core human rights treaties include:

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Civil and political rights primarily protect individuals from state power. They include rights to life and liberty, fair trials and protection from torture, and the freedoms of expression, religion, association and peaceful assembly.
  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to housing, education and health, require governments to use all available resources to gradually achieve them.

Other treaties focus on ending specific abuses, such as torture, enforced disappearances and forced labor. Some treaties protect the rights of marginalized groups, including racial minorities, women, refugees, children, people with disabilities, and domestic workers.

In addition to treaties, the United Nations has adopted various declarations, principles and guidelines to refine the meaning of particular rights. Various international institutions are responsible for interpreting human rights treaties and monitoring compliance, such as the UN Human Rights Committee and UN special rapporteurs who work on specific issues and countries. Corporations and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have a duty to avoid complicity in human rights abuses.

How are human rights enforced?

The duty to enforce international human rights law rests primarily with governments themselves. Governments are obligated to protect and promote human rights by prohibiting violations by officials and agents of the state, prosecuting offenders, and creating ways that individuals can seek help for rights violations, such as having competent, independent and impartial courts.  A country’s failure to act against abuses by private individuals, such as domestic violence, can itself be a human rights violation.

However, when governments are responsible for human rights violations, these protections are often inadequate. In these cases international institutions, like the UN Human Rights Council or the Committee against Torture, have only limited ability to enforce human rights protections.

More frequently, governments that commit human rights violations are held publicly accountable for their actions by nongovernmental organizations. Some organizations provide direct services such as legal counsel and human rights education. Other organizations try to protect human rights by bringing lawsuits on behalf of individuals or groups.  And organizations such as Human Rights Watch use fact-finding and advocacy to generate pressure on governments to change their policies.

What about human rights in armed conflict?

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, is a separate but related body of international law. Unlike human rights law, which applies at all times, the laws of war only apply during armed conflicts. The laws of war do not prohibit war, but set out rules on the conduct of hostilities by both national armed forces and non-state armed groups in order to protect civilians, provide for the humane treatment of all prisoners, and reduce wartime suffering. While customs of war have existed for thousands of years, international treaties restricting warfare date back about 150 years. Most commonly recognized today are the Geneva Conventions as well as treaties banning certain weapons, such as the Land Mines Treaty.

What about prosecutions of rights violators?

Individuals who commit serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, may be prosecuted by their own country or by other countries exercising what is known as “universal jurisdiction.” They may also be tried by international courts, such as the International Criminal Court, which was set up in 2002 to try individuals responsible for very serious crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.  


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