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Human Rights

Human rights are norms that aspire to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses. Examples of human rights are the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right not to be tortured, and the right to education.

The philosophy of human rights addresses questions about the existence, content, nature, universality, justification, and legal status of human rights. The strong claims often made on behalf of human rights (for example, that they are universal, inalienable, or exist independently of legal enactment as justified moral norms) have frequently provoked skeptical doubts and countering philosophical defenses (on these critiques see Lacrois and Pranchere 2016, Mutua 2008, and Waldron 1988). Reflection on these doubts and the responses that can be made to them has become a sub-field of political and legal philosophy with a very substantial literature (see the Bibliography below).

This entry addresses the concept of human rights, the existence and grounds of human rights, the question of which rights are human rights, and relativism about human rights.

1. The General Idea of Human Rights

2.1 how can human rights exist, 2.2 normative justifications for human rights, 2.3 political conceptions of human rights, 3.1 civil and political rights, 3.2 social rights, 3.3 rights of women, minorities, and groups, 3.4 environmental rights, 4. universal human rights in a world of diverse beliefs and practices, bibliography: books and articles in the philosophy of human rights, recent collections, guides to international human rights law, other resources, related entries.

This section attempts to explain the general idea of human rights by identifying four defining features. The goal is to answer the question of what human rights are with a description of the core concept rather than a list of specific rights. Two people can have the same general idea of human rights even though they disagree about which rights belong on a list of such rights and even about whether universal moral rights exist. The four-part explanation below attempts to cover all kinds of human rights including both moral and legal human rights and both old and new human rights (e.g., both Lockean natural rights and contemporary human rights). The explanation anticipates, however, that particular kinds of human rights will have additional features. Starting with this general concept does not commit us to treating all kinds of human rights in a single unified theory (see Buchanan 2013 for an argument that we should not attempt to theorize together universal moral rights and international legal human rights).

(1) Human rights are rights . Lest we miss the obvious, human rights are rights (see Cruft 2012 and the entry on rights ). Most if not all human rights are claim rights that impose duties or responsibilities on their addressees or dutybearers. Rights focus on a freedom, protection, status, or benefit for the rightholders (Beitz 2009). The duties associated with human rights often require actions involving respect, protection, facilitation, and provision. Rights are usually mandatory in the sense of imposing duties on their addressees, but some legal human rights seem to do little more than declare high-priority goals and assign responsibility for their progressive realization. One can argue, of course, that goal-like rights are not real rights, but it may be better to recognize that they comprise a weak but useful notion of a right (See Beitz 2009 for a defense of the view that not all human rights are rights in a strong sense. And see Feinberg 1973 for the idea of “manifesto rights”). A human rights norm might exist as (a) a shared norm of actual human moralities, (b) a justified moral norm supported by strong reasons, (c) a legal right at the national level (where it might be referred to as a “civil” or “constitutional” right), or (d) a legal right within international law. A human rights advocate might wish to see human rights exist in all four ways (See Section 2.1 How Can Human Rights Exist?).

(2) Human rights are plural . If someone accepted that there are human rights but held that there is only one of them, this might make sense if she meant that there is one abstract underlying right that generates a list of specific rights (See Dworkin 2011 for a view of this sort). But if this person meant that there is just one specific right such as the right to peaceful assembly this would be a highly revisionary view. Human rights address a variety of specific problems such as guaranteeing fair trials, ending slavery, ensuring the availability of education, and preventing genocide. Some philosophers advocate very short lists of human rights but nevertheless accept plurality (see Cohen 2004, Ignatieff 2004).

(3) Human rights are universal . All living humans—or perhaps all living persons —have human rights. One does not have to be a particular kind of person or a member of some specific nation or religion to have human rights. Included in the idea of universality is some conception of independent existence . People have human rights independently of whether they are found in the practices, morality, or law of their country or culture. This idea of universality needs several qualifications, however. First, some rights, such as the right to vote, are held only by adult citizens or residents and apply only to voting in one’s own country. Second, the human right to freedom of movement may be taken away temporarily from a person who is convicted of committing a serious crime. And third, some human rights treaties focus on the rights of vulnerable groups such as minorities, women, indigenous peoples, and children.

(4) Human rights have high-priority . Maurice Cranston held that human rights are matters of “paramount importance” and their violation “a grave affront to justice” (Cranston 1967). If human rights did not have high priority they would not have the ability to compete with other powerful considerations such as national stability and security, individual and national self-determination, and national and global prosperity. High priority does not mean, however, that human rights are absolute. As James Griffin says, human rights should be understood as “resistant to trade-offs, but not too resistant” (Griffin 2008). Further, there seems to be priority variation within human rights. For example, when the right to life conflicts with the right to privacy, the latter will generally be outweighed.

Let’s now consider five other features or functions that might be added.

Should human rights be defined as inalienable? Inalienability does not mean that rights are absolute or can never be overridden by other considerations. Rather it means that its holder cannot lose it temporarily or permanently by bad conduct or by voluntarily giving it up. It is doubtful that all human rights are inalienable in this sense. One who endorses both human rights and imprisonment as punishment for serious crimes must hold that people’s rights to freedom of movement can be forfeited temporarily or permanently by just convictions of serious crimes. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that human rights are very hard to lose. (For a stronger view of inalienability, see Donnelly 2003, Meyers 1985).

Should human rights be defined as minimal rights? A number of philosophers have proposed the view that human rights are minimal in the sense of not being too numerous (a few dozen rights rather than hundreds or thousands), and not being too demanding (See Joshua Cohen 2004, Ignatieff 2005, and Rawls 1999). Their views suggest that human rights are—or should be—more concerned with avoiding the worst than with achieving the best. Henry Shue suggests that human rights concern the “lower limits on tolerable human conduct” rather than “great aspirations and exalted ideals” (Shue 1996). When human rights are modest standards they leave most legal and policy matters open to democratic decision-making at the national and local levels. This allows human rights to have high priority, to accommodate a great deal of cultural and institutional variation among countries, and to leave open a large space for democratic decision-making at the national level. Still, there is no contradiction in the idea of an extremely expansive list of human rights and hence minimalism is not a defining feature of human rights (for criticism of the view that human rights are minimal standards see Brems 2009 and Raz 2010). Minimalism is best seen as a normative prescription for what international human rights should be. Moderate forms of minimalism have considerable appeal, but not as part of the definition of human rights.

Should human rights be defined as always being or “mirroring” moral rights? Philosophers coming to human rights theory from moral philosophy sometimes assume that human rights must be, at bottom, moral rather than legal rights. There is no contradiction, however, in people saying that they believe in human rights, but only when they are legal rights at the national or international levels. As Louis Henkin observed, “Political forces have mooted the principal philosophical objections, bridging the chasm between natural and positive law by converting natural human rights into positive legal rights” (Henkin 1978). Theorists who insist that the only human rights are legal rights may find, however, that the interpretations they can give of universality, independent existence, and high priority are weak.

Should human rights be defined in terms of serving some sort of political function? Instead of seeing human rights as grounded in some sort of independently existing moral reality, a theorist might see them as the norms of a highly useful political practice that humans have constructed or evolved. Such a view would see the idea of human rights as playing various political roles at the national and international levels and as serving thereby to protect urgent human and national interests. These political roles might include providing standards for international evaluations of how governments treat their people and specifying when use of economic sanctions or military intervention is permissible (see Section 2.3 Political Conceptions of Human Rights below).

Political theorists would add to the four defining elements suggested above some set of political roles or functions. This kind of view may be plausible for the very salient international human rights that have emerged in international law and politics in the last fifty years. But human rights can exist and function in contexts not involving international scrutiny and intervention such as a world with only one state. Imagine, for example, that an asteroid strike had killed everyone in all countries except New Zealand, leaving it the only state in existence. Surely the idea of human rights as well as many dimensions of human rights practice could continue in New Zealand, even though there would be no international relations, law, or politics (for an argument of this sort see Tasioulas 2012). And if in the same scenario a few people were discovered to have survived in Iceland and were living without a government or state, New Zealanders would know that human rights governed how these people should be treated even though they were stateless. How deeply the idea of human rights must be rooted in international law and practice should not be settled by definitional fiat. We can allow, however, that the sorts of political functions that Rawls and Beitz describe are typically served by international human rights today.

2. The Existence and Grounds of Human Rights

A philosophical question about human rights that occurs to many people is how it is possible for such rights to exist. Several possible ways are explored in this section.

The most obvious way in which human rights come into existence is as norms of national and international law that are created by enactment, custom, and judicial decisions. At the international level, human rights norms exist because of treaties that have turned them into international law. For example, the human right not to be held in slavery or servitude in Article 4 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Council of Europe, 1950) and in Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UN 1966) exists because these treaties establish it. At the national level, human rights norms exist because they have through legislative enactment, judicial decision, or custom become part of a country’s law. For example, the right against slavery exists in the United States because the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits slavery and servitude. When rights are embedded in international law we speak of them as human rights; but when they are enacted in national law we more frequently describe them as civil or constitutional rights.

Enactment in national and international law is clearly one of the ways in which human rights exist. But many have suggested that this cannot be the only way. If human rights exist only because of enactment, their availability is contingent on domestic and international political developments. Many people have looked for a way to support the idea that human rights have roots that are deeper and less subject to human decisions than legal enactment. One version of this idea is that people are born with rights, that human rights are somehow innate or inherent in human beings (see Morsink 2009). One way that a normative status could be inherent in humans is by being God-given. The U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) claims that people are “endowed by their Creator” with natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. On this view, God, the supreme lawmaker, enacted some basic human rights.

Rights plausibly attributed to divine decree must be very general and abstract (life, liberty, etc.) so that they can apply to thousands of years of human history, not just to recent centuries. But contemporary human rights are specific and many of them presuppose contemporary institutions (e.g., the right to a fair trial and the right to education). Even if people are born with God-given natural rights, we need to explain how to get from those general and abstract rights to the specific rights found in contemporary declarations and treaties.

Attributing human rights to God’s commands may give them a secure status at the metaphysical level, but in a very diverse world it does not make them practically secure. Billions of people do not believe in the God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If people do not believe in God, or in the sort of god that prescribes rights, and if you want to base human rights on theological beliefs you must persuade these people of a rights-supporting theological view. This is likely to be even harder than persuading them of human rights. Legal enactment at the national and international levels provides a far more secure status for practical purposes.

Human rights could also exist independently of legal enactment by being part of actual human moralities. All human groups seem to have moralities in the sense of imperative norms of interpersonal behavior backed by reasons and values. These moralities contain specific norms (for example, a prohibition of the intentional murder of an innocent person) and specific values (for example, valuing human life.) If almost all human groups have moralities containing norms prohibiting murder, these norms could partially constitute the human right to life.

The view that human rights are norms found in all human moralities is attractive but has serious difficulties. Although worldwide acceptance of human rights has been increasing rapidly in recent decades (see 4. Universal Human Rights in a World of Diverse Beliefs and Practices ), worldwide moral unanimity about human rights does not exist. Human rights declarations and treaties are intended to change existing norms, not just describe the existing moral consensus.

Yet another way of explaining the existence of human rights is to say that they exist most basically in true or justified ethical outlooks. On this account, to say that there is a human right against torture is mainly to assert that there are strong reasons for believing that it is always morally wrong to engage in torture and that protections should be provided against it. This approach would view the Universal Declaration as attempting to formulate a justified political morality for the whole planet. It was not merely trying to identify a preexisting moral consensus; it was rather trying to create a consensus that could be supported by very plausible moral and practical reasons. This approach requires commitment to the objectivity of such reasons. It holds that just as there are reliable ways of finding out how the physical world works, or what makes buildings sturdy and durable, there are ways of finding out what individuals may justifiably demand of each other and of governments. Even if unanimity about human rights is currently lacking, rational agreement is available to humans if they will commit themselves to open-minded and serious moral and political inquiry. If moral reasons exist independently of human construction, they can—when combined with true premises about current institutions, problems, and resources—generate moral norms different from those currently accepted or enacted. The Universal Declaration seems to proceed on exactly this assumption (see Morsink 2009). One problem with this view is that existence as good reasons seems a rather thin form of existence for human rights. But perhaps we can view this thinness as a practical rather than a theoretical problem, as something to be remedied by the formulation and enactment of legal norms. The best form of existence for human rights would combine robust legal existence with the sort of moral existence that comes from widespread acceptance based on strong moral and practical reasons.

Justifications for human rights should defend their main features including their character as rights, their universality, and their high priority. Such justifications should also be capable of providing starting points for justifying a plausible list of specific rights (on starting points and making the transition to specific rights see Nickel 2007; see also Section 3 Which Rights are Human Rights? below). Further, justifying international human rights is likely to require additional steps (Buchanan 2012). These requirements make the construction of a good justification for human rights a daunting task.

Approaches to justification include grounding human rights in prudential reasons, practical reasons, moral rights (Thomson 1990), human well-being (Sumner 1987, Talbott 2010), fundamental interests (Beitz 2015), human needs (Miller 2012), agency and autonomy (Gewirth 1996, Griffin 2008) dignity (Gilabert 2018, Kateb 2011, Tasioulas 2015), fairness (Nickel 2007), equality, and positive freedom (Gould 2004, Nussbaum 2000, Sen 2004). Justifications can be based on just one of these types of reasons or they can be eclectic and appeal to several (Tasioulas. 2015).

Grounding human rights in human agency and autonomy has had strong advocates in recent decades. For example, in Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Application (1982) Alan Gewirth offered an agency-based justification for human rights. He argued that denying the value of successful agency and action is not an option for a human being; having a life requires regarding the indispensable conditions of agency and action as necessary goods. Abstractly described, these conditions of successful agency are freedom and well-being. A prudent rational agent who must have freedom and well-being will assert a “prudential right claim” to them. Having demanded that others respect her freedom and well-being, consistency requires her to recognize and respect the freedom and well-being of other persons. Since all other agents are in exactly the same position as she is of needing freedom and well-being, consistency requires her to recognize and respect their claims to freedom and well-being. She “logically must accept” that other people as agents have equal rights to freedom and well-being. These two abstract rights work alone and together to generate equal specific human rights of familiar sorts (Gewirth 1978, 1982, 1996). Gewirth’s aspiration was to provide an argument for human rights that applies to all human agents and that is inescapable. From a few hard-to-dispute facts and a principle of consistency he thinks we can derive two generic human rights—and from them, a list of more determinate rights. Gewirth’s views have generated a large critical literature (see Beyleveld 1991, Boylan 1999).

A more recent attempt to base human rights on agency and autonomy is found in James Griffin’s book, On Human Rights (2008). Griffin does not share Gewirth’s goal of providing a logically inescapable argument for human rights, but his overall view shares key structural features with Gewirth’s. These include starting the justification with the unique value of human agency and autonomy (which Griffin calls “normative agency”), postulating some abstract rights (autonomy, freedom, and well-being), and making a place for a right to well-being within an agency-based approach.

In the current dispute between “moral” (or “orthodox”) and “political” conceptions of human rights, Griffin strongly sides with those who see human rights as fundamentally moral rights. Their defining role, in Griffin’s view, is protecting people’s ability to form and pursue conceptions of a worthwhile life—a capacity that Griffin variously refers to as “autonomy,” “normative agency,” and “personhood.” This ability to form, revise, and pursue conceptions of a worthwhile life is taken to be of paramount value, the exclusive source of human dignity, and thereby the basis of human rights (Griffin 2008). Griffin holds that people value this capacity “especially highly, often more highly than even their happiness.”

“Practicalities” also shape human rights in Griffin’s view. He describes practicalities as “a second ground” of human rights. They prescribe making the boundaries of rights clear by avoiding “too many complicated bends,” enlarging rights a little to give them safety margins, and consulting facts about human nature and the nature of society. Accordingly, the justifying generic function that Griffin assigns to human rights is protecting normative agency while taking account of practicalities.

Griffin claims that human rights suffer even more than other normative concepts from an “indeterminacy of sense” that makes them vulnerable to proliferation (Griffin 2008). He thinks that tying all human rights to the single value of normative agency while taking account of practicalities is the best way to remedy this malady. He criticizes the frequent invention of new human rights and the “ballooning of the content” of established rights. Still, Griffin is friendly towards most of the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Beyond this, Griffin takes human rights to include many rights in interpersonal morality. For example, Griffin thinks that a child’s human right to education applies not just against governments but also against the child’s parents.

Griffin’s thesis that all human rights are grounded in normative agency is put forward not so much as a description but as a proposal, as the best way of giving human rights unity, coherence, and limits. Unfortunately, accepting and following this proposal is unlikely to yield effective barriers to proliferation or a sharp line between human rights and other moral norms. The main reason is one that Griffin himself recognizes: the “generative capacities” of normative agency are “quite great.” Providing adequate protections of the three components of normative agency (autonomy, freedom, and minimal well-being) will encounter a lot of threats to these values and hence will require lots of rights.

Views that explain human rights in terms of the practical political roles that they play have had prominent advocates in recent decades. These “political” conceptions of human rights explain what human rights are by describing the things that they do . Two philosophers who have developed political conceptions are discussed in this section, namely, John Rawls and Charles Beitz (for helpful discussions of political conceptions and their alternatives see the collections of essays in Etinson 2018 and Maliks and Schaffer 2017).

Advocates of political conceptions of human rights are often agnostic or skeptical about universal moral rights while rejecting wholesale moral skepticism and thinking possible the provision of sound normative justifications for the content, normativity, and roles of human rights (for challenges to purely political views see Gilabert 2011, Liao and Etinson 2012, Sangiovanni 2017, and Waldron 2018).

John Rawls introduced the idea of a political conception of human rights in his book, The Law of Peoples (Rawls 1999). The basic idea is that we can understand what human rights are and what their justification requires by identifying the main roles they play in some political sphere. In The Law of Peoples this sphere is international relations (and, secondarily, national politics). Rawls was attempting a normative reconstruction of international law and politics within today’s international system, and this helps explain Rawls’s focus on how human rights function within this system.

Rawls says that human rights are a special class of urgent rights . He seems to accept the definition of human rights given in Section 1 above. Besides saying that human rights are rights that are high priority or “urgent,” Rawls also accepts that they are plural and universal. But Rawls was working on a narrower project than Gewirth and Griffin. The international human rights he was concerned with are also defined by their roles in helping define in various ways the normative structure of the global system. They provide content to other normative concepts such as legitimacy, sovereignty, permissible intervention, and membership in good standing in the international community.

According to Rawls the justificatory process for human rights is analogous to the one for principles of justice at the national level that he described in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971). Instead of asking about the terms of cooperation that free and equal citizens would agree to under fair conditions, we ask about the terms of cooperation that free and equal peoples or countries would agree to under fair conditions. We imagine representatives of the world’s countries meeting to choose the normative principles that constitute the basic international structure. These representatives are imagined to see the countries they represent as free (rightfully independent) and equal (equally worthy of respect and fair treatment). These representatives are also imagined to be choosing rationally in light of the fundamental interests of their country, to be reasonable in seeking to find and respect fair terms of cooperation, and impartial because they are behind a “veil of ignorance”—they lack information about the country they represent such as its size, wealth, and power. Rawls holds that under these conditions these representatives will unanimously choose principles for the global order that include some basic human rights (for further explanation of the global original position see the entries on John Rawls and original position ).

Rawls advocated a limited list of human rights, one that leaves out many fundamental freedoms, rights of political participation, and equality rights. He did this for two reasons. One is that he wanted a list that is plausible for all reasonable countries, not just liberal democracies. The second reason is that he viewed serious violations of human rights as triggering permissible intervention by other countries, and only the most important rights can play this role.

Leaving out protections for equality and democracy is a high price to pay for assigning human rights the role of making international intervention permissible when they are seriously violated. We can accommodate Rawls’underlying idea without paying that price. To accept the idea that countries engaging in massive violations of the most important human rights are not to be tolerated we do not need to follow Rawls in equating international human rights with a heavily-pruned list. Instead we can work up a view—which is needed for other purposes anyway—of which human rights are the weightiest and then assign the intervention-permitting role to this subset.

Charles Beitz’s account of human rights in The Idea of Human Rights (Beitz 2009) shares many similarities with Rawls’s but is much more fully developed. Like Rawls, Beitz deals with human rights only as they have developed in contemporary international human rights practice. Beitz suggests that we can develop an understanding of human rights by attending to “the practical inferences that would be drawn by competent participants in the practice from what they regard as valid claims of human rights.” Observations of what competent participants say and do inform the account of what human rights are. The focus is not on what human rights are at some deep philosophical level; it is rather on how they work by guiding actions within a recently emerged and still evolving discursive practice. The norms of the practice guide the interpretation and application of human rights, the appropriateness of criticism in terms of human rights, adjudication in human rights courts, and—perhaps most importantly—responding to serious violations of human rights. Beitz says that human rights are “matters of international concern” and that they are “potential triggers of transnational protective and remedial action.”

Beitz does not agree with Rawls’s view that these roles require an abbreviated list of human rights. He accepts that the requirements of human rights are weaker than the requirements of social justice at the national level, but denies that human rights are minimal or highly modest in other respects.

Beitz rightly suggests that a reasonable person can accept and use the idea of human rights without accepting any particular view about their foundations. It is less clear that he is right in suggesting that good justifications of human rights should avoid as far as possible controversial assumptions about religion, metaphysics, ideology, and intrinsic value (see the entry public reason ). Beitz emphasizes the practical good that human rights do, not their grounds in some underlying moral reality. This helps make human rights attractive to people from around the world with their diverse religious and philosophical traditions. The broad justification for human rights and their normativity that Beitz offers is that they protect “urgent individual interests against predictable dangers (”standard threats“) to which they are vulnerable under typical circumstances of life in a modern world order composed of independent states.”

3. Which Rights are Human Rights?

This section discusses the question of which rights belong on lists of human rights. The Universal Declaration’s list, which has had great influence, consists of six families: (1) Security rights that protect people against murder, torture, and genocide; (2) Due process rights that protect people against arbitrary and excessively harsh punishments and require fair and public trials for those accused of crimes; (3) Liberty rights that protect people’s fundamental freedoms in areas such as belief, expression, association, and movement; (4) Political rights that protect people’s liberty to participate in politics by assembling, protesting, voting, and serving in public office; (5) Equality rights that guarantee equal citizenship, equality before the law, and freedom from discrimination; and (6) Social rights that require that governments ensure to all the availability of work, education, health services, and an adequate standard of living. A seventh category, minority and group rights, has been created by subsequent treaties. These rights protect women, racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, children, migrant workers, and the disabled.

Not every question of social justice or wise governance is a human rights issue. For example, a country could have too many lawyers or inadequate provision for graduate-level education without violating any human rights. Deciding which norms should be counted as human rights is a matter of considerable difficulty. And there is continuing pressure to expand lists of human rights to include new areas. Many political movements would like to see their main concerns categorized as matters of human rights, since this would publicize, promote, and legitimize their concerns at the international level. A possible result of this is “human rights inflation,” the devaluation of human rights caused by producing too much bad human rights currency (See Cranston 1973, Orend 2002, Wellman 1999, Griffin 2008).

One way to avoid rights inflation is to follow Cranston in insisting that human rights only deal with extremely important goods, protections, and freedoms. A supplementary approach is to impose several justificatory tests for specific human rights. For example, it could be required that a proposed human right not only protect some very important good but also respond to one or more common and serious threats to that good (Dershowitz 2004, Donnelly 2003, Shue 1996, Talbott 2005), impose burdens on the addressees that are justifiable and no larger than necessary, and be feasible in most of the world’s countries (on feasibility see Gilabert 2009 and Nickel 2007). This approach restrains rights inflation with several tests, not just one master test.

In deciding which specific rights are human rights it is possible to make either too little or too much of international documents such as the Universal Declaration and the European Convention. One makes too little of them by proceeding as if drawing up a list of important rights were a new question, never before addressed, and as if there were no practical wisdom to be found in the choices of rights that went into the historic documents. And one makes too much of them by presuming that those documents tell us everything we need to know about human rights. This approach involves a kind of fundamentalism: it holds that when a right is on the official lists of human rights that settles its status as a human right (“If it’s in the book that’s all I need to know.”) But the process of identifying human rights in the United Nations and elsewhere was a political process with plenty of imperfections. There is little reason to take international diplomats as the most authoritative guides to which human rights there are. Further, even if a treaty’s ratification by most countries can settle the question of whether a certain right is a human right within international law, such a treaty cannot settle its weight. The treaty may suggest that the right is supported by weighty considerations, but it cannot make this so. If an international treaty enacted a right to visit national parks without charge as a human right, the ratification of that treaty would make free access to national parks a human right within international law. But it would not be able to make us believe that the right to visit national parks without charge was sufficiently important to be a real human right (see Luban 2015).

The least controversial family of human rights is civil and political rights. These rights are familiar from historic bills of rights such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791, with subsequent amendments). Contemporary sources include the first 21 Articles of the Universal Declaration , and treaties such as the European Convention , the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights , the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights . Some representative formulations follow:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one’s choice. (American Convention on Human Rights, Article 13.1)
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests (European Convention, Article 11).
Every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives in accordance with the provisions of the law. 2. Every citizen shall have the right of equal access to the public service of his country. 3. Every individual shall have the right of access to public property and services in strict equality of all persons before the law (African Charter, Article 13).

Most civil and political rights are not absolute—they can in some cases be overridden by other considerations. For example, the right to freedom of movement can be restricted by public and private property rights, by restraining orders related to domestic violence, and by legal punishments. Further, after a disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake free movement is often appropriately suspended to keep out the curious, permit access of emergency vehicles and equipment, and prevent looting. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits rights to be suspended during times “of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” (Article 4). But it excludes some rights from suspension including the right to life, the prohibition of torture, the prohibition of slavery, the prohibition of ex post facto criminal laws, and freedom of thought and religion.

The Universal Declaration included social (or “welfare”) rights that address matters such as education, food, health services, and employment. Their inclusion has been the source of much controversy (see Beetham 1995). The European Convention did not include them (although it was later amended to include the right to education). Instead they were put into a separate treaty, the European Social Charter . When the United Nations began the process of putting the rights of the Universal Declaration into international law, it followed the same pattern by treating economic and social standards in a treaty separate from the one dealing with civil and political rights. This treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (the “Social Covenant,” 1966), treated these standards as rights—albeit rights to be progressively realized.

The Social Covenant’s list of rights includes nondiscrimination and equality for women in economic and social life (Articles 2 and 3), freedom to work and opportunities to work (Article 4), fair pay and decent conditions of work (Article 7), the right to form trade unions and to strike (Article 8), social security (Article 9), special protections for mothers and children (Article 10), the right to adequate food, clothing, and housing (Article 11), the right to basic health services (Article 12), the right to education (Article 13), and the right to participate in cultural life and scientific progress (Article 15).

Article 2.1 of the Social Covenant sets out what each of the parties commits itself to do about this list, namely to “take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation…to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant.” In contrast, the Civil and Political Covenant commits its signatories to immediate compliance, to “respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory the rights recognized in the present Covenant” (Article 2.1). The contrast between these two levels of commitment has led some people to suspect that economic and social rights are really just valuable goals. Why did the Social Covenant opt for progressive implementation and thereby treat its rights as being somewhat like goals? The main reason is that many of the world’s countries lacked the economic, institutional, and human resources to realize these standards fully or even largely. For many countries, noncompliance due to inability would have been certain if these standards had been treated as immediately binding.

Social rights have often been defended with linkage arguments that show the support they provide to adequate realization of civil and political rights. This approach was first developed philosophically by Henry Shue (Shue 1996; see also Nickel 2007 and 2016). Linkage arguments defend controversial rights by showing the indispensable or highly useful support they provide to uncontroversial rights. For example, if a government succeeds in eliminating hunger and providing education to everyone this promotes people’s abilities to know, use, and enjoy their liberties, due process rights, and rights of political participation. Lack of education is frequently a barrier to the realization of civil and political rights because uneducated people often do not know what rights they have and what they can do to use and defend them. Lack of education is also a common barrier to democratic participation. Education and a minimum income make it easier for people near the bottom economically to follow politics, participate in political campaigns, and to spend the time and money needed to go to the polls and vote.

Do social rights yield a sufficient commitment to equality? Objections to social rights as human rights have come from both the political right and the political left. A common objection from the left, including liberal egalitarians and socialists, is that social rights as enumerated in human rights documents and treaties provide too weak of a commitment to material equality (Moyn 2018; Gilabert 2015). Realizing social rights requires a state that ensures to everyone an adequate minimum of resources in some key areas but that does not necessarily have strong commitments to equality of opportunity, to strong redistributive taxation, and to ceilings on wealth (see the entries equality , equality of opportunity , distributive justice , and liberal feminism ).

The egalitarian objection cannot be that human rights documents and treaties showed no concern for people living in poverty and misery. That would be wildly false. One of the main purposes of including social rights in human rights documents and treaties was to promote serious efforts to combat poverty, lack of education, and unhealthy living conditions in countries all around the world (see also Langford 2013 on the UN Millennium Development Goals). The objection also cannot be that human rights facilitated the hollowing out of systems of welfare rights in many developed countries that occurred after 1980. Those cuts in welfare programs were often in violation of the requirements of adequately realizing social rights.

Perhaps it should be conceded that human rights documents and treaties have not said enough about positive measures to promote equal opportunity in education and work. A positive right to equal opportunity, like the one Rawls proposed, would require countries to take serious measures to reduce disparities between the opportunities effectively available to children of high-income and low-income parents (Rawls 1971).

A strongly egalitarian political program is best pursued partially within but mostly beyond the human rights framework. One reason for this is that the human rights movement will have better future prospects for acceptance and realization if it has widespread political support. That requires that the rights it endorses appeal to people with a variety of political views ranging from center-left to center-right. Support from the broad political center will not emerge and survive if the human rights platform is perceived as mostly a leftist program.

Do social rights protect sufficiently important human interests? Maurice Cranston opposed social rights by suggesting that social rights are mainly concerned with matters such as holidays with pay that are not matters of deep and universal human interests (Cranston 1967, 1973. Treatments of objections to social rights include Beetham 1995; Howard 1987; and Nickel 2007). It is far from the case, however, that most social rights pertain only to superficial interests. Consider two examples: the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to free public education. These rights require governments to try to remedy widespread and serious evils such as severe poverty, starvation and malnutrition, and ignorance. The importance of food and other basic material conditions of life is easy to show. These goods are essential to people’s ability to live, function, and flourish. Without adequate access to these goods, interests in life, health, and liberty are endangered and serious illness and death are probable. Lack of access to educational opportunities typically limits (both absolutely and comparatively) people’s abilities to participate fully and effectively in the political and economic life of their country.

Are social rights too burdensome? Another objection to social rights is that they are too burdensome on their dutybearers. It is very expensive to guarantee to everyone basic education and minimal material conditions of life. Frequently the claim that social rights are too burdensome uses other, less controversial human rights as a standard of comparison, and suggests that social rights are substantially more burdensome or expensive than liberty rights. Suppose that we use as a basis of comparison liberty rights such as freedom of communication, association, and movement. These rights require both respect and protection from governments. And people cannot be adequately protected in their enjoyment of liberties such as these unless they also have security and due process rights. The costs of liberty, as it were, include the costs of law and criminal justice. Once we see this, liberty rights start to look a lot more costly.

Further, we should not generally think of social rights as simply giving everyone a free supply of the goods they protect. Guarantees of things like food and housing will be intolerably expensive and will undermine productivity if everyone simply receives a free supply. A viable system of social rights will require most people to provide these goods for themselves and their families through work as long as they are given the necessary opportunities, education, and infrastructure. Government-implemented social rights provide guarantees of availability (or “secure access”), but governments should have to supply the requisite goods in only a small fraction of cases. Note that education is often an exception to this since many countries provide free public education irrespective of ability to pay.

Countries that do not accept and implement social rights still have to bear somehow the costs of providing for the needy since these countries—particularly if they recognize democratic rights of political participation—are unlikely to find it tolerable to allow sizeable parts of the population to starve and be homeless. If government does not supply food, clothing, and shelter to those unable to provide for themselves, then families, friends, and communities will have to shoulder this burden. It is only in the last hundred or so years that government-sponsored social rights have taken over a substantial part of the burden of providing for the needy. The taxes associated with social rights are partial replacements for other burdensome duties, namely the duties of families and communities to provide adequate care for the unemployed, sick, disabled, and aged. Deciding whether to implement social rights is not a matter of deciding whether to bear such burdens, but rather of deciding whether to continue with total reliance on a system of informal provision that distributes assistance in a very spotty way and whose costs fall very unevenly on families, friends, and communities.

Are social rights feasible worldwide? Another objection to social rights alleges that they are not feasible in many countries (on how to understand feasibility see Gilabert 2009). It is very expensive to provide guarantees of subsistence, measures to protect and restore people’s health, and education. Many governments will be unable to provide these guarantees while meeting other important responsibilities. Rights are not magical sources of supply (Holmes and Sunstein 1999).

As we saw earlier, the Social Covenant dealt with the issue of feasibility by calling for progressive implementation, that is, implementation as financial and other resources permit. Does this view of implementation turn social rights into high-priority goals? And if so, is that a bad thing?

Standards that outrun the abilities of many of their addressees are good candidates for treatment as goals. Viewing them as largely aspirational rather than as imposing immediate duties avoids problems of inability-based noncompliance. One may worry, however, that this is too much of a demotion for social rights because goals seem much weaker than rights. But goals can be formulated in ways that make them more like rights. They can be assigned addressees (the parties who are to pursue the goal), beneficiaries, scopes that define the objective to be pursued, and a high level of priority (see Langford 2013 and Nickel 2013; see also UN Human Rights and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals ). Strong reasons for the importance of these goals can be provided. And supervisory bodies can monitor levels of progress and pressure low-performing addressees to attend to and work on their goals.

Treating very demanding rights as goals has several advantages. One is that proposed goals that greatly exceed our abilities are not so farcical as proposed duties that do so. Creating grand lists of social rights that many countries cannot presently realize seems farcical to many people. Perhaps this perceived lack of realism is reduced if we understand that these “rights” are really goals that countries should seriously promote. Goals coexist easily with low levels of ability to achieve them. Another advantage is that goals are flexible: addressees with different levels of ability can choose ways of pursuing the goals that suit their circumstances and means. Because of these attractions it may be worth exploring sophisticated ways to transform very demanding human rights into goals. The transformation may be full or partial. It is possible to create right-goal mixtures that contain some mandatory elements and that therefore seem more like real rights (see Brems 2009). A right-goal mixture might include some rights-like goals, some mandatory steps to be taken immediately, and duties to realize the rights-like goals as quickly as possible.

Equality of rights for historically disadvantaged or subordinated groups is a longstanding concern of the human rights movement. Human rights documents repeatedly emphasize that all people, including women and members of minority ethnic and religious groups, have equal human rights and should be able to enjoy them without discrimination. The right to freedom from discrimination figures prominently in the Universal Declaration and subsequent treaties. The Civil and Political Covenant, for example, commits participating states to respect and protect their people’s rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or social status” (on minority and group rights see Kymlicka 1995, Nickel 2007).

A number of standard individual rights are especially important to ethnic and religious minorities, including rights to freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom from discrimination. Human rights documents also include rights that refer to minorities explicitly and give them special protections. For example, the Civil and Political Covenant in Article 27 says that persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities “shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

Feminists have often protested that standard lists of human rights do not sufficiently take into account the different risks faced by women and men. For example, issues like domestic violence, reproductive choice, and trafficking of women and girls for sex work did not have a prominent place in early human rights documents and treaties. Lists of human rights have had to be expanded “to include the degradation and violation of women” (Bunch 2006, 58; see also Lockwood 2006 and Okin 1998). Violations of women’s human rights often occur in the home at the hands of other family members, not in the street at the hands of the police. Most violence against women occurs in the “private” sphere. This has meant that governments cannot be seen as the only addressees of human rights and that the right to privacy of home and family needs qualifications to allow police to protect women within the home.

The issue of how formulations of human rights should respond to variations in the sorts of risks and dangers that different people face is difficult and arises not just in relation to gender but also in relation to age, profession, political affiliation, religion, and personal interests. Due process rights, for example, are much more useful to young people (and particularly young men) than they are to older people since the latter are far less likely to run afoul of the criminal law.

Since 1964 the United Nations has mainly dealt with the rights of women and minorities through specialized treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007). See also the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Specialized treaties allow international norms to address unique problems of particular groups such as assistance and care during pregnancy and childbearing in the case of women, custody issues in the case of children, and the loss of historic territories by indigenous peoples.

Minority groups are often targets of violence. Human rights norms call upon governments to refrain from such violence and to provide protections against it. This work is partly done by the right to life, which is a standard individual right. It is also done by the right against genocide which protects some groups from attempts to destroy or decimate them. The Genocide Convention was one of the first human rights treaties after World War II. The right against genocide is clearly a group right. It is held by both individuals and groups and provides protection to groups as groups. It is largely negative in the sense that it requires governments and other agencies to refrain from destroying groups; but it also requires that legal and other protections against genocide be created at the national level.

Can the right against genocide be a human right? More generally, can a group right fit the general idea of human rights proposed earlier? On that conception, human rights are rights of all persons . Perhaps it can, however, if we broaden our conception of who can hold human rights to include important groups that people form and cherish (see the entry on group rights ). This can be made more palatable, perhaps, by recognizing that the beneficiaries of the right against genocide are individual humans who enjoy greater security against attempts to destroy the group to which they belong (Kymlicka 1989).

In spite of the danger of rights inflation, there are doubtless norms that should be counted as human rights but are not generally recognized as such. After all, there are lots of areas in which people’s dignity and fundamental interests are threatened by the actions and omissions of individuals and governments. Consider environmental rights, which are often defined to include rights of animals or even of nature itself (see the entry on environmental ethics ). Conceived in this broad way environmental rights don’t have a good fit with the general idea of human rights because the rightholders are not humans or human groups.

Alternative formulations are possible, however. A basic environmental human right can be understood as requiring maintenance and restoration of an environment that is safe for human life and health. Many countries have environmental rights of this sort in their constitutional bills of rights (Hayward 2005). And the European Union’s Bill of Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union , includes in Article 37 an environmental protection norm: “A high level of environmental protection and the improvement of the quality of the environment must be integrated into the policies of the Union and ensured in accordance with the principle of sustainable development.”

A human right to a safe environment or to environmental protection does not directly address issues such as the claims of animals or biodiversity, although it might do so indirectly using the idea of ecosystem services to humans (see Biodiversity and Human Rights . A justification for a human right to a safe environment should show that environmental problems pose serious threats to fundamental human interests, values, or norms; that governments may appropriately be burdened with the responsibility of protecting people against these threats; and that most governments actually have the ability to do this.

Climate change is currently a major environmental threat to many people’s lives and health, and hence it is unsurprising that human rights approaches to climate change have been developed and advocated in recent decades (see Bodansky 2011, Gardiner 2013, and UN Human Rights and Climate Change ). One approach, advocated by Steve Vanderheiden accepts the idea of a human right to an environment that is adequate for human life and health and derives from this broad right a more specific right to a stable climate (Vanderheiden 2008). Another approach, advocated by Simon Caney, does not require introducing a new environmental right. It suggests instead that serious action to reduce and mitigate climate change is required by already well-established human rights because severe climate change will violate many people’s rights to life, food, and health (Caney 2010). One could expand this approach by arguing that severe climate change should be reduced and mitigated because it will cause massive human migrations and other crises that will undermine the abilities of many governments to uphold human rights (for evaluation of these arguments see Bell 2013).

Two familiar philosophical worries about human rights are that they are based on moral beliefs that are culturally relative and that their creation and advocacy involves ethnocentrism. Human rights prescribe universal standards in areas such as security, law enforcement, equality, political participation, and education. The peoples and countries of planet Earth are, however, enormously varied in their practices, traditions, religions, and levels of economic and political development. Putting these two propositions together may be enough to justify the worry that universal human rights do not sufficiently accommodate the diversity of Earth’s peoples. A theoretical expression of this worry is “relativism,” the idea that ethical, political, and legal standards for a particular country or region are mostly shaped by the traditions, beliefs, and conditions of that country or region (see the entry on moral relativism ). The anthropologist William G. Sumner, writing in 1906, asserted that “the mores can make anything right and prevent condemnation of anything” (Sumner 1906).

Relativists sometimes accuse human rights advocates of ethnocentrism, arrogance, and cultural imperialism (Talbott 2005). Ethnocentrism is the assumption, usually unconscious, that “one’s own group is the center of everything” and that its beliefs, practices, and norms provide the standards by which other groups are “scaled and rated” (Sumner 1906; see also Etinson 2018 who argues that ethnocentrism is best understood as a kind of cultural bias rather than as a belief in cultural superiority). Ethnocentrism can lead to arrogance and intolerance in dealings with other countries, ethical systems, and religions. Finally, cultural imperialism occurs when the economically, technologically, and militarily strongest countries impose their beliefs, values, and institutions on the rest of the world. Relativists often combine these charges with a prescription, namely that tolerance of varied practices and traditions ought to be instilled and practiced through measures that include extended learning about other cultures.

The conflict between relativists and human rights advocates may be partially based on differences in their underlying philosophical beliefs, particularly in metaethics. Relativists are often subjectivists or noncognitivists and think of morality as entirely socially constructed and transmitted. In contrast, philosophically-inclined human rights advocates are more likely to adhere to or presuppose cognitivism, moral realism , and intuitionism .

During the drafting in 1947 of the Universal Declaration, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association warned of the danger that the Declaration would be “a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in Western Europe and America.” Perhaps the main concern of the AAA Board in the period right after World War II was to condemn the intolerant colonialist attitudes of the day and to advocate cultural and political self-determination. But the Board also made the stronger assertion that “standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive” and thus “what is held to be a human right in one society may be regarded as anti-social by another people” ( American Anthropological Association Statement on Human Rights 1947 ).

This is not, of course, the stance of most anthropologists today. Currently the American Anthropological Association has a Committee on Human Rights whose objectives include promoting and protecting human rights and developing an anthropological perspective on human rights. While still emphasizing the importance of cultural differences, anthropologists now often support cultural survival and the protection of vulnerable cultures, non-discrimination, and the rights and land claims of indigenous peoples.

The idea that relativism and exposure to other cultures promote tolerance may be correct from a psychological perspective. People who are sensitive to differences in beliefs, practices, and traditions, and who are suspicious of the grounds for extending norms across borders, may be more inclined to be tolerant of other countries and peoples than those who believe in an objective universal morality. Still, philosophers have been generally critical of attempts to argue from relativism to a prescription of tolerance (Talbott 2005). If the culture and religion of one country has long fostered intolerant attitudes and practices, and if its citizens and officials act intolerantly towards people from other countries, they are simply following their own traditions and cultural norms. They are just doing what relativists think people mostly do. Accordingly, a relativist from a tolerant country will be hard-pressed to find a basis for criticizing the citizens and officials of the intolerant country. To do so the relativist will have to endorse a transcultural principle of tolerance and to advocate as an outsider cultural change in the direction of greater tolerance. Because of this, relativists who are deeply committed to tolerance may find themselves attracted to a qualified commitment to human rights.

East Asia is the region of the world that participates least in the international human rights system—even though some important East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea do participate. In the 1990s Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and others argued that international human rights as found in United Nations declarations and treaties were insensitive to distinctive “Asian values” such as prizing families and community (in contrast to strong individualism); putting social harmony over personal freedom; respect for political leaders and institutions; and emphasizing responsibility, hard work, and thriftiness as means of social progress (on the Asian Values debate see Bauer and Bell 1999; Bell 2000; Sen 1997; and Twining 2009). Proponents of the Asian values idea did not wish to abolish all human rights; they rather wanted to deemphasize some families of human rights, particularly the fundamental freedoms and rights of democratic participation (and in some cases the rights of women). They also wanted Western governments and NGOs to stop criticizing them for human rights violations in these areas.

At the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, countries including Singapore, Malaysia, China, and Iran advocated accommodations within human rights practice for cultural and economic differences. Western representatives tended to view the position of these countries as excuses for repression and authoritarianism. The Conference responded by approving the Vienna Declaration . It included in Article 5 the assertion that countries should not pick and choose among human rights: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Perhaps the debate about relativism and human rights has become obsolete. In recent decades widespread acceptance of human rights has occurred in most parts of the world. Three quarters of the world’s countries have ratified the major human rights treaties, and many countries in Africa, the Americas, and Europe participate in regional human rights regimes that have international courts (see Georgetown University Human Rights Law Research Guide in the Other Internet Resources below). Further, all of the world’s countries now use similar political institutions (law, courts, legislatures, executives, militaries, bureaucracies, police, prisons, taxation, and public schools) and these institutions carry with them characteristic problems and abuses (Donnelly 2003). Finally, globalization has diminished the differences among peoples. Today’s world is not the one that early anthropologists and missionaries found. National and cultural boundaries are breached not just by international trade but also by millions of travelers and migrants, electronic communications, international law covering many areas, and the efforts of international governmental and non-governmental organizations. International influences and organizations are everywhere and countries borrow freely and regularly from each other’s inventions and practices.

Worldwide polls on attitudes towards human rights are now available and they show broad support for human rights and international efforts to promote them. Empirical research can now replace or supplement theoretical speculations about how much disagreement on human rights exists worldwide. A December 2011 report by the Council on Foreign Relations surveyed recent international opinion polls on human rights that probe agreement and disagreement with propositions such as “People have the right to express any opinion,” “People of all faiths can practice their religion freely,” “Women should have the same rights as men,” “People of different races [should be] treated equally,” and governments “should be responsible for ensuring that [their] citizens can meet their basic need for food.” Big majorities of those polled in countries such as Argentina, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, Nigeria, China, India, and Indonesia gave affirmative answers. Further, large majorities (on average 70%) in all the countries polled supported UN efforts to promote the human rights set out in the Universal Declaration. Unfortunately, popular acceptance of human rights ideas has not, however, prevented a recent slide in many of these same countries towards authoritarianism.

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Library of Congress Catalog Data: ISSN 1095-5054

Karel Vasak’s Generations of Rights and the Contemporary Human Rights Discourse

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  • Published: 06 September 2019
  • Volume 20 , pages 423–443, ( 2019 )

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In the late 1970s, when Karel Vasak offered his concept of the three generations of rights, it was inclusive enough to embrace the whole spectrum of existing human rights. Forty years later, this paper explores the nature of contemporary human rights discourse and questions to what extent Vasak’s categorization is still relevant. Our work discusses the evolution of the concept of human rights, the changing dichotomies of national and international, individual and collective, and positive and negative rights. This paper uses qualitative methods of content analysis and quantitative frequency analysis method to explore the nature of scholarly discourse presented in human rights journals. Our research findings highlight the dynamic evolution of contemporary human rights discourse. The paper specifically illustrates the increasing emphasis on collective and internationalist rights and the enhancement of human rights matters that are difficult to categorize using Vasak’s approach. In doing so, the paper calls for the clarification of the language of contemporary human rights.

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It’s been over four decades since Karel Vašák has introduced the three generations of rights. Although subject to severe criticism since the outset, his division of rights into generations has offered scholars, activists, and pundits a useful tool to organize the human rights discourse to the extent that it is difficult to run across a book or article that does not refer to Vašák’s conceptualization directly or indirectly. Even critics of the concept itself, like Philip Alston, Jack Donnelly, or Hurst Hannum, recognize the practical existence of separate groups containing specific features. Similar to Vašák, Micheline Ishay also sees the history of human rights as the chronological development of the liberal and secular, socialist and eventually international institutionalization, and the right to self-development (Ishay 2008 ). Donnelly acknowledges the fact that each of the three groups overlapping with Vašák’s generations is patronized by one of the three blocks during the Cold War: the West accenting the civil and political rights; the East pushing forward the economic, social, and cultural rights agenda; and the Third World accenting the importance of solidarity rights (Donnelly 1993 , p. 235). Similarly, Hannum recognizes the importance of the 1970s as a period of clear delineation of the particular groups of rights, their roles, mechanisms, and place in the political structures (Hannum 2019 , p. 171).

Nevertheless, it has been over four decades since Vašák’s generations entered the human rights debate. Being aware of the new global environment after the Cold War, the new challenges, tides of democratization and illiberal resurgence, new pressing problems like terrorism and migration that continue to profoundly influence the national and international priorities, and the evolving nature of the human rights discourse, we wonder whether Vašák’s generations of rights are still valid.

Hence, through the application of qualitative and quantitative analyses of three renown human rights journals, we decided to identify the prevalent trends in the contemporary human rights discourse, and establish whether Vašák’s categorization of rights still holds and if there is a need for a renewed discussion on the organization of the human rights discourse.

Karel Vašák: Three Generations of Rights

The classification provided by Karel Vašák, which offers the notion of three generations of rights (Vašák 1977 , pp. 29–32), is probably the most practical, commonly used, and comprehensive categorization of human rights (Uvin 2002 ; Ishay 2008 ; Ife 2012 ; Wellman 2000 ; Bunch 1990 ; Downs 1993 ; Alston 1982 ; Tomuschat 2014 ; Stein 2007 ). Most importantly for our research, it encompasses the dichotomies used in major attempts of human rights classification: negative vs. positive rights, individual vs. collective rights, and national vs. international liability.

The first generation regards negative rights and corresponds to civil and political liberties. The second generation presumes a positive action of the state and includes social, economic, and cultural rights. Footnote 1 The first two generations of rights have their corresponding covenants signed in 1966: the ICCPR for the first and ICESCR for the second (UN 1966a , 1966b ). The sharp distinction between the two covenants lies in the parties’ obligations stemming from the respective Article 2.1. for each of them. The ICCPR relevant provision requires states’ “respect and insurance” of the rights enlisted in the Covenant, whereas the ICESCR binds countries only of “taking steps” in certain direction aiming at the fulfillment of the Covenant’s provisions. Footnote 2 Finally, Vašák’s third generation of human rights is referred to as “rights of solidarity.” They require collective action of individuals as well as states and other political units (Vašák 1977 , p. 29).

The first generation also has a long history of accenting liberty , dating back to the Magna Carta ( 1297 ) and including such milestone documents as the United States Bill of Rights ( 1791 ) and the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen ( 1789 ). Among those rights are the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to fair trial, equality before the law, and other civil and political rights. The second generation of equality rights was a product of the rapid nineteenth century industrialization and accompanying social and economic inequalities (Wellman 2000 , p. 640; Alston 1982 , p. 317). In the context of the emerging ideological confrontation after WWII, the communist camp staunchly supported the economic, social, and cultural rights. Their distinct feature is the prerequisite for active state involvement. Hence, the first two generations of rights were encompassed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly  1948 ), with the West and the East clearly prioritizing respectively the first and second generations. While differentiating between the first and second generations of rights, Vašák contrasted the negative character of the former and the positive of the latter (Vašák 1977 , p. 29). Moreover, both generations refer to individual rights and impose the corresponding duties onto the nation state.

The third generation of human rights is the most recent and vague in content. Collective rights that belong to this group were mentioned in the Stockholm Declaration (UN GeneralAssembly  1972 ), Rio Declaration (UN General Assembly  1992 ), and other international documents of declaratory character. Footnote 3 Those rights include right to self-determination, economic and social development, healthy environment, natural resources, and participation in cultural heritage (Vašák 1977 , p. 29). Hence, such rights are positive and collective and demand responsibility, which lies beyond the nation-state.

Thus, Vašák’s differentiation between the three generations quite neatly fits into the three dichotomies based on the major approaches to human rights categorization: (1) negative (first generation) and positive (second and third generations), (2) individual (first and second generations) and collective (third generation), and (3) national (first and second generations) and international (third generation) liability as summarized in Table 1 .

Ultimately, the third generation of rights assumes that they are positive, in terms of requiring active participation of duty-bearers; collective, in terms that focus on people or collectivities instead of individuals; and international, that they operate within the international relations erga omnes instead of the sole relationship between the state and the individual. In our research, we will stick to the thus understood categorization of Vašák’s generations.

Vašák’s Critics

An early critique of Vašák’s generations was offered by Philip Alston already in the early 1980s. Approaching the question from international human rights perspective, he relied on the three stages in the process of formulating and implementing human rights Footnote 4 (Alston 1982 , pp. 315–316). Concerned with the speed of the process for the promotion of the third-generation rights, Alston questioned whether the translation of the needs into specific legal norms at a relevant legislative forum was met and whether there is no practical blurring of the all three stages (Alston 1982 , p. 316).

Vašák’s generations were criticized also from semantic perspective, underlining the assumed generational exchange that could have undermined the already acknowledged human rights. Valid arguments were also raised that the extension of the human rights catalogue with new ones will move the accent from the old ones and thus weaken the whole system, since there is still a lot to be done in the field of human rights protection of these old rights.

Fredman also mentioned the need for rethinking the approach to the first- and second-generation rights as strictly negative and positive correspondingly. She argues that in the contemporary usage of the concept of human rights, demarcation between those positive and negative duties becomes increasingly blurred (Fredman 2006 ). Indeed, certain rights, like the right to a fair trial, fall to both categories since it simultaneously guarantees the individual right, but also requires the active state participation for its practical cherishment.

On the other hand, Kooijmans pointed out that a good right requires (a) a holder of the right, who can bring (b) an objectified claim against (c) a duty-bearer who must honor the claim (Kooijmans 1990 , p. 323). The collective claims against the vaguely defined participants in international relations can hardly meet this test. The critique adopts the dominant skepticism among western scholars that the third generation of rights confuses the fundamental principles for human rights protection with the demands of various groups and interests, and blends them with vaguely defined political rhetoric, thus bringing an overall negative impact to the international system of human rights protection.

However, this is not to say that international human rights should not be adjusted to the changing reality. Still, as critics stress, the existing catalogues offer substantial opportunities to further improve human rights protection within the existing framework (Alston 1982 ; Wellman 2000 ). Ultimately, as Alston and Kooijmans claimed, the introduction of the generations of rights was purposeful and aimed to advance such newly defined collective human rights as the ones promoted by Vašák (Alston 1982 ; Kooijmans 1990 ). However, regardless of the extensive critique, the third generation of rights enrooted itself into the human rights discourse.

Hence, for the sake of our research, it is important to stress that we do not take a position concerning the accuracy and implications of Vašák’s generations. Our intention is much more modest, aiming to explore whether the generations, as offered by Vašák, are still able to accommodate the concept of rights and claims that circulate within international human rights discourse. We want to set up hypotheses, as to what are the dominant human rights themes, does the contemporary themes still fit to Vašák’s categorizations, and eventually, do we need a redefinition of Vašák’s pattern of categorization.

The Possible Dissonance of Theory and Practice

Before we turn to our empirical analysis, we need to acknowledge additional issues that give us the grounds to expect and that give us the reason to claim that the contemporary human rights discourse is different than forty years ago.

The first one concerns the paradigmatic change which occurred in the context of the right to development and subsequently took over the whole United Nations human rights doctrine. As Mariana Karadzhova noticed, together with the introduction of the right to development, the solidarity rights brought a new pattern of rights expansion through the adoption of political acts in the form of non-binding declarations. Starting from the UN GA resolution 41/128 in 1986, the idea of human rights indivisibility was aiming to equalize all human rights in value, regardless of their origin, history, or maturity (Karadzhova 2002 , pp. 232–233). This process was reaffirmed in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action 1993 ). Thus, noticeable dissonance emerged between Vašák’s notion of generations of rights and the official UN position. This formal, and yet only declaratory, decision practically reaffirmed the concerns about the negative impact of the attempts to equalize the three generations of rights. It is still not clear, whether the weakness came from the elevation of the third generation or the degradation of the first and second generations. All in all, third-generation rights promoters enthusiastically embrace this approach, since it offers further legitimization.

Secondly, it is difficult to prescribe minority rights into one of the Vašák’s categories. On one hand, they clearly focus on protection of the interests of particular groups—racial, national, sexual, and other minorities. Thus, they cannot be considered first-generation rights since individualism plays a pivotal role for that category. However, freedom from discrimination falls under an umbrella of civil and political liberties. Yet still, freedom from discrimination and rights of minorities do not hold an equal denotation for the former refers to a negative liberty to be free from arbitrary will of others, be it the state or other groups of population, while the latter presumes that those actors bear a responsibility to provide certain rights and living conditions to minority groups.

In addition, scholars identify various dimensions of the changing human rights environment. The Cold War ended the period of bipolarity in international relations. Regardless of the endless scholar debates whether after the Cold War we live in Pax Americana, multipolar or multilayer system, there is a noticeable shift in the forces shaping the contemporary human rights discourse. In this respect, it is apparent that globalization with its spread of western liberal values and free market has dominated global politics.

This early post–Cold War enthusiasm grounded in the Washington Consensus and the third wave of democratization (Huntington 1992 ) was accompanied by severe intra-state conflicts that required prompt response, which was vested on the vaguely defined international community. Humanitarian Intervention and eventually Responsibility to Protect (R2P) challenged the concepts of sovereignty and state obligations towards own citizens, inflating the expectations towards human rights. This overly extensive interpretation extends the concept to various vaguely related fields, which Hannum defines aptly as humanitarianism (Hannum 2019 , p. 134).

Regional integration processes also had an impact on the human rights discourse. After the Maastricht Treaty, the European Union pursued also axiological integration by drawing its own Charter of Fundamental Rights (Official Journal of the European Communities 2000 ) with a substantially new terminology, resembling the UN direction of squaring first and second generations of rights (Carleton n.d. , Bisztyga 2011 ).

Micheline Ishay aptly embraces the complexity of issues that deserve attention in the globalization era, like the questions of labor and development rights, global environment and environment rights, migration and citizens’ rights, or cultural rights (Ishay 2008 , pp. 256–279).

Simultaneously, after a noticeable retreat of non-democratic states after 1989, since the early twenty-first century, a reverse tide of authoritarian renewal takes place. Accommodated in the global liberal market, China and Russia provided the recipe for non-democratic states how to regain position and power. Part of that process is what Freedman describes as human rights hybridity (Freedman 2014 ). Ultimately, terrorism, migration, poverty, and anti-western ideological resistance also leave their marks on the contemporary human rights discourse.

The aforementioned trends lead us to the identification of the “gray zones” of the contemporary human rights discourse that contain but are not limited to the following processes. Firstly, there is a noticeably growing role of international organizations and international legal bodies. Thus, state sovereignty was not only challenged, but states became subject to various axiological and terminological innovations triggering specific reactions. Secondly, the limited ability of the Council of Europe to produce comprehensive mechanisms for international protection of minorities within the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities issued by the Council of Europe in 1995 revealed the legal and political limits to group rights protection, even within a group of likeminded and enthusiastic to extended human rights protection states. Footnote 5 Thirdly, the human rights discourse embraces more and more dimensions and specific aspects. It does not only include questions related to ethics in business like pesticides (Dinham, Malik 2003 ), moral code of mining, fracking, but also bioethics (Albuquerque 2014 ; Pelluchon 2008 ; Raposo 2016 ) or robotics (Robertson 2014 ). Human rights have been also further profiled to secure the needs of particular groups like elderly or people with disabilities (Fredvang and Biggs 2012 ; Celik 2017 ; Council of Europe 2018 ). Fourthly, increasingly, the contemporary human rights debate attempts to reconsider the core human rights axiology through the lenses of post-modernist critical theory (Wang 2013 ) aiming to deconstruct human supremacism (Kymlicka 2018 ) and the extension of the basis of rights to sentientism (Baldissone 2010 ). Last but not least, the multicentricity, defined as the emergence of alternative to the state sources of legitimacy, like the European Union (Bisztyga 2011 ; Bojarski et al. 2014 ) or the Council of Europe (Łętowska 2005 ) paved the way for changing the nature of the human rights discourse. Whereas initially the system was constructed through the uploading of national human rights practices to international level, nowadays, states are exposed to the reverse process of downloading from the extending human rights menu emerging in international organizations.

Notwithstanding all these new developments, we raise the question whether Vašák’s generations are still suitable to grasp the complexity of the contemporary international relations? Where are the main accents of the contemporary human rights discourse? Ultimately, do we need a new paradigm to talk about human rights?

Fitting the Contemporary Discourse into Vašák’s Categories

In order to provide an empirical analysis of the contemporary human rights narrative, we based the research on the articles published in three peer-reviewed academic human rights journals. The data was divided into the categories primarily based on Vašák’s classification. The decision to use this categorization was due to the fact that Vašák’s approach takes three major dichotomies into account: negative vs. positive rights, individual vs. collective rights, and national vs. international rights. Thus, we aim to establish (1) how comprehensive this attempt to analyze the human rights is in regard to the contemporary discourse, and (2) which topics of the contemporary discourse are neglected by this categorization.

Hereupon, we categorized the data in the following way. The first category—civil and political liberties—encompassed a wide range of topics that correspond to Vašák’s group of the “first generation” rights. Namely, negative rights that refer to civil and political freedoms. We based our understanding of the civil and political liberties on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UN 1966a ) with few exceptions. The major exception that we decided to make was with regard to the right to self-determination. This right stands out from this list because, unlike all the other rights, it clearly refers to a collective rather than an individual. Instead, the right to self-determination is usually associated with the decolonization process and may even be regarded as the oldest and foremost right of the third generation (Freedman 2014 , p. 947). Thus, the first group includes the rights that are (1) negative and (2) individual, and (3) refer to civil and political liberties (Vašák 1977 , 29), as well as (4) place the duty for their protection on the state.

The second group encompasses what Vašák calls the “second-generation” rights. Those rights are (1) positive and (2) individual; (3) refer to social, economic, and cultural rights (Vašák 1977 , p. 29); and (3) consider state as a duty holder. Following the logic of the previous group, we used International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN 1966b ) to determine the full list of rights belonging to this category.

As for the “third-generation” rights, Vašák defines them as “solidarity” rights and prescribes such issues as development, environment, peace, and common heritage to this generation (Vašák 1977 , p. 29). However, there is no commonly accepted agreement on the exact list of those rights, and there is a tendency to prescribe all the rights that do not fit into the first two generations to this category. Therefore, it deserves further elaboration.

The initial list mentioned by Vašák in 1977 emerged as a reaction to decolonization process and ensured the rights for communities to develop independently (Freedman 2014 , p. 948). Reacting to the flow of history, this generation was extended by some new notions, primarily humanitarianism and responsibility to protect doctrine (Teitel 2003 , p. 91–92). Generally, those rights emerge amid international conflicts when the international community is expected to protect the rights of the communities affected by violence and ensure their right to peace. The baseline here is whether the collective is the holder of the right and whether it is subjected to the jurisdiction of the international community. However, as an exception, we assigned the topics that referred to issues such as genocide and mass atrocities to the first-generation rights due to the fact that they focus on the protection of essential individual right—right to life.

Moreover, emergence of new aspects of international cooperation that became associated with human rights, such as transitional justice and democratization, posed even more challenges to our categorization. In respect to those rights, we did not put them into the third-generation category since transition and democratization do not follow the logic of Vašák’s list so obviously. Whereas the right to self-determination emerged in the Cold War process of decolonization, despite the extensive scholar attempts to apply colonial studies to the post–Cold War transitions, we refrain from bringing the right to self-determination and post–Cold War transitions and democratization under one denominator. Thus, in our analysis, the third-generation category embraced the rights referring to self-determination, development, peacebuilding, environment, humanitarianism, and responsibility to protect, while leaving the remaining topics, which are sometimes ascribed to this generation, to the uncategorized group, and thus, requiring further analysis.

While gathering the data, we noticed some other tendencies that were not addressed by Vašák’s categorization. Most notably, the overwhelming number of articles that were devoted to the minority rights cannot be regarded solely within the framework of the “first-generational” freedom from discrimination. As it was discussed in the first part of the article, rights of minorities in their contemporary understanding and implementation are positive in their character and thus require active participation of the state. To deal with this ambiguity, we decided to detach minority rights into a separate category—group rights. Though this violates the harmony of Vašák’s division, the generalization of his theoretical proposition is too substantial to ignore. At the same time, some of the articles were devoted to the first-generational freedom from discrimination rather than to group rights . Thus, we performed additional context analysis of each bigram (word pair) mentioning minorities depending on whether they approached the problem from the group perspective.

Another ambiguous umbrella topic is migration. Here, our rationale in differentiating between the generations was individual/collective dichotomy. Thus, the topics of human trafficking, asylum seekers, and refugees were assigned to the first generation since they focused on infringement of personal freedoms, while the topic of migration per se was impossible to ascribe to any of the categories since it can be combined with rights from any of the categories.

Finally, the last group that presents a particular value for the research refers to the rights that we were not able to prescribe to any of the categories. Those rights present the “gray area” of the contemporary human rights theory and demonstrate the direction in which the concept evolves. They include such dimensions as truth and reconciliation commissions, migration, terrorism, reparations, sanctions, and forgiveness.


In order to find out what is the framework of the contemporary human rights narrative, we sought to categorize articles published in the three human rights journals according to types of rights most frequently discussed in the abstracts. The abstracts generally provide a brief yet exhausting information about the topic, main thesis, and conclusion of the article. Unfortunately, not all the articles included abstracts. In those cases, we substituted the abstracts with the article introductions. Longer pieces of data were expected to return more frequent appearance of certain words and consequently, may result in misrepresentation of prevalent topics. In order to resolve this problem, we also used relative frequencies in determining how often the topics appear in the analyzed data.

The data is preprocessed following the common routines inherent to text analysis (Grimme and Brandon 2013 ). Therefore, the abstracts are analyzed by removing numbers, punctuations, symbols, and hyphens and subsequently, by assigning the frequency of each word utilized in the text to the respective abstract. Furthermore, stop words (the most common words in English) are removed from the analysis. Footnote 6 Rather than solely basing our analysis on bag of words of approach, revolving only on single word analysis (unigram analysis), we extended the study by providing some context. Consequently, in addition to unigrams, our analysis focused on the analysis of bigrams (word pairs). In this regard, stemming of words was not necessary. Footnote 7

The analysis requires creation of a dictionary indicative of the aforementioned generation of rights. A specialized dictionary of this type does not exist, so it was necessary to create a dictionary which will assign relevant bigrams to particular generation of human rights. In order to do so, from the pool of all unigrams used in the abstracts (16,259 unique words), we selected unigrams inherent to the human rights discourse in general. On the basis of this selection, we have chosen all bigrams in which the relevant words appear. Finally, the relevant bigrams are categorized in one of the abovementioned categories. In total, the created dictionary consists of 2635 bigrams.

However, it is necessary to mention that some bigrams with certain semantic charge were excluded from the analysis. Firstly, excluded bigrams referred to either international institutions or specific countries. While we realize that international institutions play a crucial role in the contemporary human rights discourse, the nature of our analysis based on bigram categorization requires unambiguously denoted human rights, while the discussion of international organizations’ functioning usually covers an umbrella of rights. As for the bigrams including countries, since bigrams consisted of two words, when one word denoted a name of a country, it was often impossible to precisely determine the category of rights based only on one word. Due to this, we had to omit such cases from our analysis, though this sphere undoubtedly deserves further research. Finally, articles written in response to a certain academic work were excluded from statistical analysis since they referred to already addressed topics.

While the approach to the generation of rights was a priori (as we predominantly base our theoretical framework on Vašák), the approach to the uncategorized rights is explorative. Due to the ambiguity in differentiation between some topics and their dependence on the context, the analysis will necessary suffer from a set of crude limitations and provide approximated results. Nonetheless, the statistical analysis offers a robust assessment of the contemporary human rights narrative.

Our research was divided into two main stages:

During the first-stage research, we gathered the data from the articles published in the academic human rights journals and determined the categories for classification of data using qualitative analysis. Thus, our analysis, grounded on Vašák’s divisions and preliminary extended by us, included five categories: the three generations of rights, additional category of group rights, and uncategorized rights.

Then, aiming to provide reliable results and double-check the credibility of the results, we used quantitative method of statistical analysis.

In order to conduct the research, we focused on the three human rights academic journals. The reason for choosing the academic journals instead of other sources of information is that they provide reliable studies in the sequential manner and contain a sufficient number of peer-reviewed articles, which allows establishing general patterns and tendencies in the discourse. Moreover, the issues are published quarterly, which allows to analyze the articles in a consecutive way. The number of journals was set on three since the number of the articles published in those journals since the early 2000s (1545 articles) is sufficient to avoid accidental patterns and establish consistent trends. The journals included into the research are the following:

Human Rights Review

The Journal of Human Rights

Human Rights Quarterly

Considering that the majority of the editorial board members of those journals are the US scholars, it may be expected that the results will reflect the American human rights discourse. However, publication in those journals is available to authors from all over the world; they encompass a wide range of topics and do not favor any particular sphere of research, which provides a possibility to gather the statistics taking into account a comprehensive picture of the modern human rights discourse.

Results of the Research

The collected data comprises a variety of abstracts. The abstracts vary in the length (number of used characters); mean number of used characters is 1361, while the median is 1018 characters. Footnote 8 Considering the number of words, mean number of words used in abstracts is 207.8 while the median number of words is 150. Footnote 9 In total, analysis is based on 164,387 words across 1375 abstracts (Fig. 1 ).

figure 1

Distributions of characters and words

As it can be expected, the most frequently used terms are “human” and “rights.” The term “rights” accounts for 2.9% while the term “human” accounts for 2.2% of all terms used in the abstracts. In accounting for distribution of the remaining terms, a selected set of additional words, assumed to be irrelevant, is excluded. Footnote 10 Considering the absolute frequency of the terms, the most frequent terms include the following: “international,” “political,” “law,” “state/s,” and “social.” Table 2 presents the ranking of the first 25 terms according their absolute and relative frequency.

A similar form of analysis is applied to bigrams (i.e., pairs of terms used together). The total number of bigrams across the abstracts is 135,537. As expected, the most frequently used bigram is “human rights” which accounts for approximately 2% of all bigrams. The set of most frequently used bigrams includes “international law,” “United Nations,” “transitional justice,” “social (and) cultural,” “economic (and) social,” and “civil society.” The following table presents 25 most frequently occurring bigrams (excluding “human rights”) (see Table 3 ).

The results of the frequency analysis of bigrams across categorization of rights are displayed in Table 4 . The abstracts’ bigram frequency analysis demonstrates that the most discussed category of human rights in the period of 2000 to 2017 is the first generation or rights, which accounts for 336 abstracts in total. The second generation is discussed twice as less than the first (165 articles), and the third is somewhat less than the second (125 articles). However, the analysis shows that the number of abstracts devoted to the group rights is higher even than second-generation rights (174 articles). Finally, the number of articles which cannot be assigned to any generation of rights is 206. At the same time, it is important to mention that prescription of the abstracts to only one category may sometimes omit some important aspects since oftentimes the article may refer to rights from different categories simultaneously. A number of articles devoted equal space to multiple generations of rights. Most frequently articles combine discussion of the first generation of rights with other generations of rights. In this respect, the first and the second generations of rights are equally discussed in 14 articles; the first and the third generations of rights are equally discussed in 11 articles; the first generation of rights and group rights are discussed in 26 articles; and the first generation of rights and rights which cannot be categorized were discussed in 36 articles. Finally, our dictionary was not relevant for categorization of 216 articles.

In order to provide a more nuanced analysis, we also used the relative frequency of bigrams. Footnote 11 The relative bigram frequencies slightly differ from the absolute frequencies. Here, the first generation as well scores the highest (352 articles); however, it is followed not by the group rights (151 articles), but by the second generation of rights (221 articles). Finally, the third generation of right and the articles which cannot be categorized into any of the generations of rights are 183 and 253 articles, respectively.

The dominant bigrams in the first generation or rights are “civil society,” “war crimes,” “human dignity,” “death penalty,” “crimes (against) humanity,” “property rights,” “freedom of association,” and “religious freedom.” The most frequent bigrams in the second generation of rights are “economic social,” “cultural rights,” “labor rights,” “right (to) health,” “rights (to) education,” and “socioeconomic rights.” The most numerous bigrams in the third generation of rights are “self(-)determination,” “international (and) humanitarian,” “developing countries,” “peace process,” “development (of) human,” and “economic development.” On the other hand, in the category of group rights, some of the most frequently used bigrams are “women’s rights,” “indigenous peoples,” “children’s rights,” “minority rights,” “LGBT rights,” and “racial discrimination.” Finally, some of the bigrams which are characteristic for the group of bigrams which were not classified in any of the previous classes of rights are “transitional justice,” “truth commissions,” “human trafficking,” “displaced persons,” “anti(-)trafficking,” and “migrant smuggling” (we will discuss this category in detail below).

Next, we have examined the distribution of generation of right across time. Figure 2 demonstrates that across years 2000–2017, by and large, the distribution of bigrams across generations of rights is fairly stable. Naturally, there is some variation in a number of bigrams across the time. However, overall, the pattern seems to be invariable in that dominant category is the first generation of rights, followed by the category of groups of rights. The least frequently addressed topics in the articles are the second generation of rights and the third generation of rights (see Fig.  2 ).

figure 2

Categories of rights across years

Nevertheless, a closer look at the distribution of abstracts across times provides some indication that in the last two decades, generation 1 rights are gradually playing a less important role in human rights debates (see Fig.  3 ). However, the variation across years is quite substantial providing no certainty with respect to the hypothesized declining trend.

figure 3

Generation of rights across years

The most important area of the present research, however, refers to the bigrams which could not be categorized in any of the aforementioned four categories of rights. On the basis of the qualitative explorative analysis, we have determined that uncategorized bigrams exhaustively refer to the rights connected to the following: transition, security and terrorism, migration, sanctions, warfare, eugenics and science, and identity. Furthermore, since the transition category was quite broad and embraced multiple aspects of this process, we created additional subcategories referring to the following: transition and democratization, history and memory, and transitional justice (including reconciliation, forgiveness, and retributions).

Then, the category of migration embraced the different aspects of immigration and migrants’ rights. Though one might argue that those rights should be considered a part of the first generation, we concluded that those topics do not directly address first-generation rights, unlike, for example, the rights of asylum seekers.

Next, the identity category stands quite close to group rights as well as cultural rights of the second generation. Yet still, we decided not to lump it together with those due to the fact that even though it clearly refers to distinct groups, it does not identify specific rights to be protected. Hence, it includes such topics as national identity, traditional values, multiculturalism, and ethnonational.

Finally, the warfare category also deserves further deliberation. It embraces the topics, which do not fit either into the third-generational sphere of humanitarianism, or into mass atrocities, with unambiguous violation of the right to life. Instead, they broadly refer to conflicts of national or international concern. Thus, such topics as armed conflicts, civil wars, military intervention, and guerrilla warfare were placed into the warfare category.

The articles used in the analysis predominantly address the category of transition rights (176 articles in terms of absolute frequency). Within the category of transition rights, the class of rights which concerns the transitional justice is by far the most predominant category with 107 articles in absolute terms (see Table 5 ).

Considering the other types of rights from the group of uncategorized bigrams, warfare is the most discussed class of rights with 87 and 110 articles in terms of absolute and relative frequencies, respectively. This category is followed by the class of migration rights with 52 and 50 articles in terms of absolute and relative frequencies, respectively. Other classes of rights are not as present in the articles. Nevertheless, there is evidence of a somewhat more significant presence of the topics of identity, and security and terrorism (see Table 6 ).

Considering the most dominant class of rights, the most frequent bigrams belong to the category of transitional justice. By far the most frequently used bigram is “transitional justice” followed by “truth commission/s” and “truth (and) reconciliation.” Considering the class of history and memory from the transition category of rights, the most frequently used bigrams are “cultural relativism,” “truth telling,” “politics (of) memory,” and “post(-)colonial.” Finally, considering the class of transition and democratization, the most frequently used bigrams are as follows: “democratic transition,” “transitional societies,” and “political transition.”

With respect to the other types of rights, as mentioned above, four categories stand out: warfare, migration, identity, and security and terrorism. The most frequently used terms with respect to warfare class of rights are “armed conflict/s,” “civil war,” “armed forces,” “political violence,” “military intervention,” “civilian population/s,” and “ethnic conflict.” On the other hand, considering the migration class of rights, the most frequently used bigrams are “regulating immigration,” “irregular immigrants,” “migrant workers,” and “migrants rights.” With respect to the class of identity rights, the most frequently used bigrams are as follows: “traditional values,” “national identity,” “Islamic identity,” and “Muslim communities.” Finally, considering the class of security and terrorism, the most frequently used bigrams are “War (on) Terror,” “anti-terrorist,” and “terrorist violence.”

Discussion of the Results

The results of the analysis present a few interesting points for reflection. Firstly, if to look at relative unigram (Table 2 ) and bigram (Table 3 ) frequencies, it is evident that words and word combinations “international,” “global,” “international human,” and “United Nations,” are more numerous and precede in frequency words such as “state,” “national,” and “domestic.” It demonstrates that within the three journals, human rights tend to be discussed within the international context more frequently than in the context of nation states. Notwithstanding that the three journals’ titles do not imply internationalization, it is obvious that the shift is towards the international, rather than domestic realm of human rights.

Secondly, the results displayed in Table 4 demonstrate that the most discussed generation of human rights is the first—civil and political liberties. Articles, which focus on this generation, amount to somewhat less than one-third of the total number. However, even though the most frequent bigram detected within this category is “civil society”—the central notion for this generation—the following bigrams are less straightforward. For example, the second most frequent bigram is “war crimes” and the fifth—“crimes (against) humanity.” We include those word combinations into the first-generation category based on their focus on the protection of the right to life; however, this position can be debated since it does not unambiguously correspond to Vašák’s definition. Thus, it shows that even though the first generation is the most numerous, the main focus lies not on the “classical” list of rights such as the rights to life, fair trial, assembly, and religion, but on the new concepts that generally follow the logic of the basic rights while functioning in a conflict environment and entail international response.

As for the second- and third-generation rights, on the contrary, the most frequent bigrams of those categories correspond to the list of rights mentioned by Vašák and international covenants quite neatly. For the second generation, those are “economic social” and “cultural rights,” “rights (to) health,” “right (to) education,” (even though it should be noted that the European Convention on Human Rights puts right to education among the first-generation rights), etc. Similarly, the most frequent bigrams of the third generation are “self(-)determination,” “developing countries,” “peace process,” and such alike. Hence, the discussion of those generations is more consistent with the theoretical framework.

The group rights category confirmed our observations with the most frequent topics of rights of women, indigenous people, children, LGBT rights, and racial discrimination. However, another noticeable group of topics is related to conflicts and post-conflict environment (displaced persons, trafficking, and smuggling). These aspects diffuse the basic human rights principles to the unstable political environment at national, but even more to regional levels.

Finally, the most challenging part of the research concerns the uncategorized bigrams presented in Tables  5 and 6 . Within that category, by far, the most discussed topic is transition with transitional justice being its most popular aspect, followed by democratization and memory-related topics. The second largest group of articles among the uncategorized ones is devoted to warfare and its different aspects. Then, the following group is focused on migration, and approximately twice less popular are the topics of identity and terrorism, which also did not fit into Vašák’s categorization.

Thus, the uncategorized group presents a fruitful area for discussion and amounts to the second largest category overall, preceded only by the first-generation rights. It demonstrates that the contemporary human rights discourse is overburdened with the topics that are too ambiguous for existing categorizations and require further reconsideration. Eventually, as it was rightfully predicted by Alston almost four decades ago, “the concept of third generation solidarity rights would seem to contribute more obfuscation than clarification in an area which can ill afford to be made less accessible to the masses than it already is” (Alston 1982 , p. 322).

The main aim of the article was to investigate to what extent the contemporary human rights narrative corresponds to the applied categorizations of human rights over the last half a century. The research elaborated on Karel Vašák’s comprehensive categorization of human rights and its theoretical foundations. Since that categorization was created almost half a century ago, we examined whether it is still encompasses the constantly expanding human rights discourse.

According to the results of our analysis, the topics that are too ambiguous to be categorized based on the Vašák’s approach, constitute the second most numerous category, which indicates a substantial mismatch with Vašák’s classification. Such a gray area primarily includes topics like transitional justice, reconciliation, truth commissions, terrorism, reparations, rights of migrants, forgiveness, reparations, and economic sanctions. As it becomes evident from the statistical data, these topics were widely discussed in the analyzed journals. However, when it comes to categorization, they do not fit into any of the categories due to their vagueness and ambiguity. Specifically, it is challenging to differentiate those topics based on the dichotomies of Vašák’s categorization: negative vs. positive, individual vs. collective, and national vs. international rights. Hence, there may be several explanations for that: either those topics fall outside of the theoretical requirements of the human rights concept, or the framework of the concept itself is not developed enough to encompass all of the abovementioned topics.

Finally, the research also demonstrated that the first-generation rights—the classical freedoms and liberties—still receive significant attention. However, their context is internationalized and their content shifts towards the international context. Such “internationalization” of political and civil rights, usually associated with the relation between the state and the individual, might be a peculiarity of the three analyzed journals, but it constitutes an interesting trend that deserves further research. Another interesting fact emerges from the individual vs. collective dichotomy. Since both third-generation and group rights refer to the collective, they compose a considerable counterbalance to the individual rights of the first generation.

Notwithstanding the limited scope of this research and with regard to the alternative approaches towards the concept of human rights, this survey reveals an interesting dilemma for the contemporary human rights narrative—the lack of comprehensive approach to categorization that is able to reflect the new developments of the theory. Undoubtedly, some of the topics that fell into the “no category” group in the present research could be narrowed down and further specified in order to fit the Vašák’s division of human rights and be receptive to the criteria of that categorization. However, there is an apparent need for more exact criteria to what the human rights concept can and cannot incorporate without disturbing the balance of its framework. However, as noticed over the last forty years, from the introduction of the third generation through the recognition of the indivisibility of rights, the international human rights practice rather encourages the softening than tightening of requirements for what means to be a human right.

Vašák’s categorization organized human rights in terms of importance, reference to freedom, or equality and ultimately as a guideline how to understand the particular rights. Our research has found that regardless of the continuing dominant position of the rights belonging to Vašák’s first generation, the bulk of the debate (all other categorizations taken together) overshadow the primacy of civil and political rights. Our research findings suggest that there is a burning need for a new debate on the idea and importance of human rights: firstly, because within the human rights community the accent shifts from the primacy of freedom to the primacy of equality; secondly, because the post–Cold War liberal order settled around the human rights pillar faces unprecedented attack from illiberal regimes and the temptation for democratic backsliding; thirdly, because the power of human rights stemmed from its human (read individually)-centered approach. However, today, as our research reveals on this narrow sample, priority shifts noticeably towards collectives rather than individuals.

The concept of negative rights (“freedoms from”) and positive rights (rights to) was firstly addressed by Isaiah Berlin ( 1990 ).

Art. 2.1. of the ICCPR “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals” and Art. 2.1. of the ICESCR “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.” A good example of the changing apprehension of the concept of human rights is that in 2008, additional protocol to the ICESCR was opened for parties willing to elevate the role of social, economic, and cultural rights to the one of the ICCPR (see Ssenyonjo 2011 ; Mapulanga-Hulston 2002 )

Such as follows: African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights 1982 ; Declaration on the Right to Development 1986 ; United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007 .

The three stages consisted of the following: (1) perception of a particular problem and the formulation of the relevant needs or aspirations; (2) the translation of some of these needs into specific legal norms through recognition by the relevant legislative forum; (3) the identification and elaboration of means by which to promote realization of the legal norm.

In Article 3.2, it states that “Persons belonging to national minorities may exercise the rights and enjoy the freedoms (…) individually as well as in community with others.” Therefore, even in legal terms, it is not clear how to treat minorities’ rights. Moreover, it enlists not only first-generation rights, but also right to equal access to education and right to participation in cultural, social, and economic life. Thus, the Convention does not provide a clear designation of minorities. Moreover, in the General Considerations part, it acknowledges that “Framework Convention contains no definition of the notion of ‘national minority’” since “it is impossible to arrive at a definition capable of mustering general support of all Council of Europe member States” (Council of Europe 1995 ).

Some of the stop words include the following: “an,” “and,” “any,” “are,” “as,” “the,” “be,” “because,” “been,” “nor,” “of,” and “on.”

Stemming removes the ends of words to reduce the total number of unique words.

The number of abstracts above 2500 characters comprises approximately 11% of all abstracts.

The share of abstracts above 500 words is approximately 7.5% while the number of abstracts of words below 100 words is approximately 13%.

The list of terms includes the following: “human,” “rights,” “right,” “this,” “within,” “many,” “examines,” “approach,” “the,” “also,” “paper,” “article,” “can,” “argue,” “may,” “recent,” “form,” “without,” “part,” “concludes,” “analysis,” “these,” “must,” “first,” “examine,” “however,” “much,” “one,” “two,” “three,” “while,” “number,” “since,” “argument,” “claims,” “whether,” “necessary,” “study,” “upon,” “including,” “yet,” “attention,” “rather,” “among,” “use,” “often,” “well,” “end,” “argues,” “issue,” “way,” “but,” “particularly,” “increasingly,” “less,” “set,” “address,” “various,” “although,” “thus,” “page,” “make,” “fact,” “might,” “using,” “possible,” “especially,” “several,” “data,” “essay,” “still,” “means,” “little,” “studies,” “four,” “high,” “across,” “analyses,” “towards,” “indeed.”

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Domaradzki, S., Khvostova, M. & Pupovac, D. Karel Vasak’s Generations of Rights and the Contemporary Human Rights Discourse. Hum Rights Rev 20 , 423–443 (2019).

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Global Campus scholars publish a wealth of innovative books and academic articles, which reflect the multi-disciplinarity and regional diversity of our network.

In the repository, you can find books, pamphlets, theses, reports and articles written by our worldwide partners, experts, academics, and students.

The Global Campus Human Rights Journal (GCHRJ) is established as a peer-reviewed bi-annual publication dedicated to serving as a forum for rigorous scholarly analysis and critical commentary in the fields of human rights and democratisation at the local, national, regional and global levels. We particularly encourage multi- and inter-disciplinary perspectives and a range of methodological approaches. GCHRJ also aims to foster interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration between stakeholders, including academics, activists in human rights and democratisation, NGOs and civil society. GCHRJ is an open access journal published under the auspices of the Global Campus of Human Rights and supported financially by the European Union.

Awarded Masters’ Theses

Every year the regional master’s programmes also select the best master thesis of the previous academic year that is published online as part of the GC publications. The selected seven GC master theses cover a range of different international human rights topics and challenges. Adding to the GC master theses, are selections of Master’s theses which most Programmes award on a yearly basis (e.g. E.MA Awarded theses).

The reports constitute the chief result of the work of over a hundred of scholars gathered under the umbrella of FRAME project researching the means to foster human rights among European policies. FRAME was a large-scale, collaborative research project (2013-2017) funded under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) coordinated by the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies and conducted by 19 research institutes from around the world.

The European Yearbook on Human Rights adopts a holistic, critical perspective on recent developments in the area of human rights, particularly in Europe. It contains extensive sections on the three main organisations charged with securing human rights in Europe: EU, Council of Europe and OSCE. The Yearbook also typically addresses the role of civil society in human rights protection and covers a broad range of other multidisciplinary topics. The impressive array of authors – academics and diplomats, practitioners and human rights experts – makes the Yearbook essential reading for anyone interested in human rights in Europe and beyond.

The Global Campus Open Knowledge Repository is a digital service that collects, preserves, and distributes all digital materials resulting from the rich and varied production of the Global Campus of Human Rights. It is an ever-growing collection which aims to give visibility to our research outputs, educational content, and multimedia materials; sustain open access for knowledge transfer; and foster communication within and beyond academia.

Publications by GC Scholars

Scholars affiliated with the Global Campus participating universities regularly publish monographies, anthologies and journal articles on topics related to human rights and democracy. An overview of selected recent publications can be found at our recent publications section.

The academic year 2016/2017 marked the 20 th anniversary of EMA cooperation, which was initiated in 1997 in the context of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education. The anniversary publication 20 Years of EMA celebrates this remarkable accomplishment with a rich collection of articles, photos, testimony by contributors and beneficiaries of this innovative and influential undertaking.

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  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 ( General Assembly resolution 217 A ) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages . The UDHR is widely recognized as having inspired, and paved the way for, the adoption of more than seventy human rights treaties, applied today on a permanent basis at global and regional levels (all containing references to it in their preambles). 

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, therefore,

The General Assembly,

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. 

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

  • Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
  • No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  • Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
  • Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
  • This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
  • Everyone has the right to a nationality.
  • No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
  • Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  • Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  • The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
  • Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
  • No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
  • No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
  • Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
  • Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
  • The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

  • Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

  • Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  • Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
  • Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  • Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  • Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
  • Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
  • Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

  • Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
  • In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
  • These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

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2023: UDHR turns 75

What is the Declaration of Human Rights? Narrated by Morgan Freeman.

UN digital ambassador Elyx animates the UDHR

cards with stick figure illustrating human rights

To mark the 75th anniversary of the UDHR in December 2023, the United Nations has partnered once again with French digital artist YAK (Yacine Ait Kaci) – whose illustrated character Elyx is the first digital ambassador of the United Nations – on an animated version of the 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

UDHR Illustrated

Cover of the illustrated version of the UDHR.

Read the Illustrated edition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UDHR in 80+ languages

nine people in rows of 3 facing camera

Watch and listen to people around the world reading articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in more than 80 languages.

Women Who Shaped the Declaration

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, seated at right speaking with Mrs. Hansa Mehta who stands next to her.

Women delegates from various countries played a key role in getting women’s rights included in the Declaration. Hansa Mehta of India (standing above Eleanor Roosevelt) is widely credited with changing the phrase "All men are born free and equal" to "All human beings are born free and equal" in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Human Rights Careers

5 Universities Where You Can Download Human Rights Theses for Free

Most university students are accustomed to finding research at their own university library, either online or physically hunting out research papers. Although many universities have a wealth of research available for their students, it is also well worth your time to expand your search to other universities which allow you to download research papers online. By expanding your research to other universities, you will be able to include a wider range of ideas in your own thesis. Furthermore, the breadth of human rights as an area of study requires very in-depth research which can be enhanced by studying theses from different universities. Here are a few universities which allow you to download whole theses for free.

University of Oxford, the United Kingdom

The University of Oxford is one of the top universities in the UK. The university has published substantial research as part of Oxford University Press, the largest university press in the world, since 1586. Oxford offers masters programmes in International Human Rights Law from a faculty which is comprised of internationally recognised human rights scholars and advocates. Needless to say, the research papers that are published are often of excellent quality and you can download many of them for free. Simply search for Oxford University Research Archive and from there you will be able to enter the topic of the research paper, such as Human Rights , and select Thesis under Item Type on the left-hand menu of the screen.

From here you will be able to download any paper that is marked with an open, green padlock. The papers with closed, red padlocks are currently under embargo and will ask you to request access. There is a varied selection of human rights papers that you can download instantly, and for free, including papers on women’s rights and globalisation of universal human rights in the Middle East. You can further refine your search by adding more filters in the left-hand menu which makes finding relevant theses quick and simple.

Yale University, the United States of America

This Ivy League University in Connecticut is globally recognized for both its university and law school and possesses the third largest academic library in the USA. For this reason, you can also find a lot of research online using their database EliScholar . Some items require login details for access, but many of the papers are available to download for free. Type human rights in the search bar and refine your search by adding specifications such as Theses/Dissertation which you can find under Publication Type on the left-hand search menu. You can also further refine your search based on Discipline and Keywords . Here you will find papers related to human rights such as women’s participation and the health of the community in Uttar Pradesh, India.

Yale university offers an undergraduate programme in human rights which is heavily career focused, connecting students with faculty peers who can support them with internship opportunities. The programme adopts a multidisciplinary approach including areas such as anthropology, area studies, law, literature, philosophy and political science, covering a range of aspects necessary for the study of global human rights. The human rights programme recognises the complexity and diversity of this area of study and, subsequently, produces world class research which you can access for free.

University College London, the United Kingdom

Ranking 10 th in the UK according to The Guardian University league tables for 2019 , University College London is another reputable source of human rights theses. The institute of human rights at UCL is multidisciplinary and promotes cutting edge research. They focus on interpretation and application of human rights both internationally and domestically contributing to UCL’s role as a global university.

Search for UCL discovery , enter Human Rights in the search menu and refine your search by selecting thesis under Type. The texts with an open green padlock are available to download for free. Here you will find full doctoral theses for example ‘ Should international human rights law be extended to apply to multinational corporations and other business entities?’ by Sabina Anne Espinoza. A doctoral thesis would provide a lot more information, compared to an undergraduate or master’s thesis, as most are around 200 pages long. You can also select Detailed Search from the left-hand menu to add specific details about the type of paper you are looking for and from here you can select Full text available in order to see only the papers that you can download for free.

University of Vienna (Universität Wien), Austria

The University of Vienna or Universität Wien also has an impressive database of theses available to download for free. You can access the database by searching for Universität Wien E-theses and selecting Search Repository . Here you can use the advanced search options to specify your topic.

This university offers a masters in Human Rights programme which accepts students from different personal and professional backgrounds allowing students to develop an international network which will be essential in future careers. The faculty is made up of human rights practitioners who have experience working in the field meaning research papers are based on real life knowledge. The programme also offers field experience in the post conflict situation in Kosovo as well as internship and research placements. Thus, the research papers produced by this faculty are of high quality as well as being easily accessible.

University of Toronto, Canada

Another very inclusive database has been created by the University of Toronto, which is ranked 21 st in the world according to The Times World University Rankings for 2019 . Search for the University of Toronto Tspace and from this page you can search for faculty and student research. Within the faculty of law, this University offers an International Human Rights programme. Since 1988, they have placed over 145 law students in internships in countries around the world. Students taking part in these internships have the opportunity to work with governmental and non-governmental organisations, which provides vital experience in the field of human rights.

This career focused programme has subsequently produced some thoroughly detailed papers such as ‘Recognizing a sustainable relationship between International Human Rights and International Trade Law in a pursuit to have human rights taken more seriously: A case study of the People’s Republic of China and the WTO’ by Jessica Crystal Antoine. This is one of the many papers you can access for free on Tspace by selecting the paper and clicking Download Thesis from the menu entitled Files on the right-hand side of the screen.

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About the author, human rights careers.

Human Rights Careers (HRC) provides information about online courses, jobs, paid internships, masters degrees, scholarships and other opportunities in the human rights sector and related areas.

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177 Human Rights Research Topics: Bright Ideas List 2023

177 Human Rights Research Topics

Do you have a college research project or thesis on human rights and have been wondering how to prepare a good paper? You need a number of things, such as good research, analytical, and writing skills. However, the first step is getting the right topic. This is very challenging for most students, but we are here to help. This post provides a 177 human rights topics list that you can count on for the best grade. We will also tell you how to craft a great university human rights dissertation.

A Brief about Human Rights

Human rights are the basic freedoms and rights that belong to all persons in the globe, starting from birth to death. These rights apply irrespective of where you are, personal beliefs, or the way you decide to live your life. They cannot be taken away but can be restricted in some cases, such as if you break the law.

The basic rights are anchored on shared values, such as dignity, fairness, equality, independence, and respect. They are all protected by law. Because of their wide applications in areas such as the justice system and employment-related topics, you can expect to get many related school assignments and projects on it.

How to Write a Good Human Rights Thesis or Dissertation

Before we can look at the best human rights thesis topics, let’s look at the best process of writing it. This can be divided into six main steps:

  • Identify the study topic in line with your class teacher/professor’s recommendations. You can use our list of basic human rights topics that comes shortly after this guide.
  • Research the topic well to ensure it has ample resources. Then, identify the main points that will be covered during the study. It will be good to think about the entire dissertation right from the start because all parts are interconnected.
  • Develop a thesis statement. This is very important because it will be tested after analyzing the results.
  • Develop a good structure for the thesis. This is the outline that will guide you on what to include at what point. Carefully look at the current recommendation from your school. One of the best outlines you might want to consider include:
Introduction Literature review Methodology Results Analysis and discussion Conclusion Bibliography
  • Prepare the first draft.
  • Write the final draft by redefining the first draft. At this point, it will be a good idea to consider editing services from experts.

Next, we will highlight the main topics that you should consider in human rights. However, we’d like to remind that you can only pay for thesis and not waste your time over a tone of assignments.

Top Human Rights Research Topics

  • How does social discrimination impact people living with HIV/AIDS?
  • Same-sex marriage: Why is it more social compared to religious significance?
  • A review of international reaction to sweatshops in Asian countries.
  • A closer look at the flaws of morals for kids raised in the US compared to those brought up in Japan.
  • A comprehensive review of the employment problem arising from the surge of the immigrant population.
  • Human rights violations in a country of choice: How has it impacted its image?
  • War against terrorism: How is it impacting human rights?
  • Should prisoners retain their voting rights?
  • Should the US cut trade ties with countries that grossly violate human rights?
  • Universal human rights: Are they achievable in the modern world?
  • Is there a point where human rights can be justified in the interest of national security?
  • Use of cameras in public places: Do they violate human rights?
  • Non-governmental organizations’ operations: Are they strong enough to help protect human rights?
  • Promotion of human rights: Should it be the first priority for every government?
  • Capitalistic systems: Do they defend or violate human rights?
  • Comparing the policies for human rights protection of the United States and India.
  • A review of human rights violations during the 2021 US army withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  • Should the US be held accountable for the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945?
  • Human rights in the US and Latin America: A comparison.
  • Compare two historical human rights portraits in the 20 th century.

Argumentative Human Rights Topics

  • Is violation of human rights allowed during times of war?
  • Circumcision of infants: Does it violate their human rights?
  • Should women and men have varying rights?
  • What is the link between human rights and traditions?
  • Capital punishment: Should it be considered a violation of human rights?
  • Right for freedom to education: Should it be made available for all?
  • Social media networking services: Should they guarantee privacy for all the clients.
  • Is the US policy on immigration discriminatory?
  • Interest of states: Should it take precedence over an individual’s human rights?
  • Developed countries have a duty to promote human rights in the developing states.
  • Pet ownership should be considered a universal human right.
  • Childhood concept differs from one culture to another: Should the notion of child labor also vary?
  • What are inappropriate ways of fighting for human rights?
  • Development of a country: Does it depend on the country’s defense of human rights?
  • From a human rights perspective, which is the most important amendment to the US constitution?
  • Comparing Apartheid and Holocaust: Has justice been done for the victims.
  • Human rights in the 21 st century: Is the globe doing enough to address the crisis in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and Afghanistan?
  • What are the most important lessons on human rights from World War II?
  • Human rights violations in West Bank: Has the globe done enough?

International Human Rights Topics

  • What does the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines tell us about human rights internationally?
  • A review of cases of human rights in the United States between the 1950 and 2000.
  • Analyze the impacts of discrimination based on color and race.
  • A thematic review of modern human rights movements.
  • Trace the evolution of human rights starting from the ancient times to the age of globalization.
  • What is the relationship between human rights and peace in a country? A case study of the Netherlands.
  • Disability in the UK is under attack: Discuss.
  • Who should people running away from human rights violations turn to?
  • Is it appropriate to deny human rights on the basis of religion and gender?
  • Violation of human rights in North Korea: How is the developed world preparing to tackle it?
  • Violation of human rights in Venezuela: Should the United States get involved?
  • The right to stay silent in a court of law: How is this likely to affect the accused person?
  • What are the best remedies for addressing violations of women’s rights in the Middle East?
  • Will the world ever get to a point where people will live without worrying about human rights violations?
  • What makes it so difficult to introduce gun control in the United States?
  • Who should be held responsible for cases of mass shootings in schools?

Controversial Human Rights Topics

  • What are the similarities and differences between human and civil rights?
  • Evaluate the violation of human rights in Syria in the 21 st century.
  • Police-related human rights violation: How can we prevent it?
  • Should prisoners have a right to vote?
  • Assisted euthanasia is a violation of human rights: Discuss.
  • Should persons who try to take their own lives be charged in a court of law?
  • What is the best way to punish states for violating human rights?
  • Countries arming themselves with nuclear weapons are readying to violate human rights.
  • How effective are laws on domestic violence in the UK?
  • All cases of human abuses in history should be tried and concluded.
  • Is the UN doing enough to protect human rights?
  • Holocaust: Is it possible for the world to heal completely?
  • Do you think that the Rwanda Genocide could have been avoided?
  • It is time to act: How do you think the global community should handle the problem of immigrants trying to cross from Africa into Europe?
  • The hidden danger of not addressing bullying in school.
  • Is disciplining a child a violation of human rights?
  • Are correctional facilities doing enough to correct the behavior of inmates?
  • Is imprisonment enough to punish murder criminals?
  • Making a case for life imprisonment and the death penalty for murder criminals.
  • Is abortion a violation of human rights?

Human Rights Discussion Topics

  • What is your view on the famous revolt of the Cockroach People?
  • Discuss the outcomes of the LGBT movements in the 20 th century.
  • A deeper look into civil rights movements from Malcolm X point of view.
  • Interaction between Japan and China during WWII: How did it impact human rights issues in the two states?
  • Discuss the biggest human rights violations in South Africa after Apartheid.
  • UN Refugee program: How does it help enhance refugees’ welfare across the globe?
  • French Revolution and human rights: A thematic review.
  • Human rights in medieval Europe.
  • Human Rights Act in New Zealand in 1993: What is its significance?
  • Which human rights did women across the globe find hard to access in the 20 th century?
  • Police brutality in Brazil: Are the efforts taken by the government enough?
  • Discuss transgender rights in Europe.
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  • Comparing disability policies in the US and India.
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Interesting Civil Rights Topics

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PhD Topics in Human Rights

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Other Human Rights Research Paper Topics

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The concept of human rights over time has gained popularity and recognition. It has been observed that the evolution of human rights in the present era has aroused a lot of debate and controversy as regard its justification and applicability to a human being, by virtue of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Conference in Vienna 1993. These international treaties reconfirmed the validity of the universality of human rights, which has attracted criticizing from cultural relativist scholars like Renteln that it is based on western origin. This paper adopted the doctrinal and analytical research method in examining cultural relativist views such as Renteln's argument on the Universality of Human Rights and Cultural Relativism if Universalism of Human Rights is Western Imperialism? Weakness and Challenges of cultural relativist View on human rights. It was therefore recommended that, in order to end the endless arguments on whether or not human rights are universal, there is a need to convene an international forum where at least a more significant number percentage of nations can form a quorum in resolving the issue.

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The consolidation of relations of global society requires the progressive establishment of a global legal system, consisting of a system of rules-precisely, human rights-as the source and evaluation criteria of positive national rights. This essay aims to contribute to some extent using reflective dialectical methodology, establishing logical-argumentative criteria, based on the dialogue between authors to exercise a critical reflection of the official narrative on the universality of human rights, in addition overcoming the universalism/relativism dichotomy eurocentricaly established by a theory of human rights between universalism and cultural relativism. Introdution There are strong criticisms of the attempts to create a world political order based on the defense of human rights, allowing international organizations and major powers to implement a centralized policy of "humanitarian" intervention, situated above the sovereignty of States, using even of war resources if necessary. In this line of argument, there are those who accuse the West of using "human rights rhetoric" to cover up their true political and economic interests and, through that discourse, impose its policies on the rest of the world. The process leading to the creation and consolidation of human rights is contemporary to the expansion of Europe and the West over the whole world and inextricably linked to this process and its contradictions. If, in the so-called West, the consolidation of some fundamental rights was the result of many struggles and conflicts and wars, non-European countries excluded from this process since the beginning and not infrequently participated as victims. The approach to the issue of human rights comes as a more tortuous issue to jurists faced with dilemmas that have assumed an enormous degree of importance with the intra-frontier and international community and which, at the same time, have not yet achieved unity of thought that allows its organization to ensure universal protection. It is, therefore, relevant to the establishment of a set of universal human rights to try to find, at least, a minimum set of guarantees capable of assuring the dignity of the human person. The very notion of dignity is problematic for the solution of this impasse, as each country, and within each of these countries, each culture sheltered by them, tends to establish its own conception of human dignity. To discuss a theory of human rights necessarily leads to a reference to the juridical theory of this class of rights, enshrined by a range of treaties, conventions and

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Critical Legal Thinking

Seven Theses on Human Rights: (1) The Idea of Humanity

by Costas Douzinas | 16 May 2013


If ‘humanity’ is the normative source of moral and legal rules, do we know what ‘humanity’ is? Important philosophical and ontological questions are involved here. Let me have a brief look at its history.

Pre-modern societies did not develop a comprehensive idea of the human species. Free men were Athenians or Spartans, Romans or Carthaginians, but not members of humanity; they were Greeks or barbarians, but not humans. According to classical philosophy, a teleologically determined human nature distributes people across social hierarchies and roles and endows them with differentiated characteristics. The word humanitas appeared for the first time in the Roman Republic as a translation of the Greek word paideia. It was defined as eruditio et institutio in bonas artes (the closest modern equivalent is the German Bildung ). The Romans inherited the concept from Stoicism and used it to distinguish between the homo humanus, the educated Roman who was conversant with Greek culture and philosophy and was subjected to the jus civile , and the homines barbari, who included the majority of the uneducated non-Roman inhabitants of the Empire. Humanity enters the western lexicon as an attribute and predicate of homo , as a term of separation and distinction. For Cicero as well as the younger Scipio, humanitas implies generosity, politeness, civilization, and culture and is opposed to barbarism and animality. 1 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 107. “Only those who conform to certain standards are really men in the full sense, and fully merit the adjective ‘human’ or the attribute ‘humanity.’” 2 B.L. Ullman, “What are the Humanities?” Journal of Higher Education 17/6 (1946), at 302. Hannah Arendt puts it sarcastically: ‘a human being or homo in the original meaning of the word indicates someone outside the range of law and the body politic of the citizens, as for instance a slave – but certainly a politically irrelevant being.’ 3 H.C. Baldry, The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought , (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1965), 201.

If we now turn to the political and legal uses of humanitas , a similar history emerges. The concept ‘humanity’ has been consistently used to separate, distribute, and classify people into rulers, ruled, and excluded. ‘Humanity’ acts as a normative source for politics and law against a background of variable inhumanity. This strategy of political separation curiously entered the historical stage at the precise point when the first proper universalist conception of humanitas emerged in Christian theology, captured in the St Paul’s statement, that there is no Greek or Jew, man or woman, free man or slave (Epistle to the Galatians 3:28). All people are equally part of humanity because they can be saved in God’s plan of salvation and, secondly, because they share the attributes of humanity now sharply differentiated from a transcended divinity and a subhuman animality. For classical humanism, reason determines the human: man is a zoon logon echon or animale rationale . For Christian metaphysics, on the other hand, the immortal soul, both carried and imprisoned by the body, is the mark of humanity. The new idea of universal equality, unknown to the Greeks, entered the western world as a combination of classical and Christian metaphysics.

The divisive action of ‘humanity’ survived the invention of its spiritual equality. Pope, Emperor, Prince, and King, these representatives and disciples of God on earth were absolute rulers. Their subjects, the sub-jecti or sub-diti , take the law and their commands from their political superiors. More importantly, people will be saved in Christ only if they accept the faith, since non-Christians have no place in the providential plan. This radical divide and exclusion founded the ecumenical mission and proselytizing drive of Church and Empire. Christ’s spiritual law of love turned into a battle cry: let us bring the pagans to the grace of God, let us make the singular event of Christ universal, let us impose the message of truth and love upon the whole world. The classical separation between Greek (or human) and barbarian was based on clearly demarcated territorial and linguistic frontiers. In the Christian empire, the frontier was internalized and split the known globe diagonally between the faithful and the heathen. The barbarians were no longer beyond the city as the city expanded to include the known world. They became ‘enemies within’ to be appropriately corrected or eliminated if they stubbornly refused spiritual or secular salvation.

The meaning of humanity after the conquest of the ‘New World’ was vigorously contested in one of the most important public debates in history. In April 1550, Charles V of Spain called a council of state in Valladolid to discuss the Spanish attitude towards the vanquished Indians of Mexico. The philosopher Ginés de Sepulveda and the Bishop Bartholomé de las Casas, two major figures of the Spanish Enlightenment, debated on opposite sides. Sepulveda, who had just translated Aristotle’s Politics into Spanish, argued that “the Spaniards rule with perfect right over the barbarians who, in prudence, talent, virtue, humanity are as inferior to the Spaniards as children to adults, women to men, the savage and cruel to the mild and gentle, I might say as monkey to men.” 4 Ginés de Sepulveda, Democrates Segundo of De las Justas Causa de la Guerra contra los Indios (Madrid: Institute Fransisco de Vitoria, 1951), 33 quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America trans. Richard Howard (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 153.  The Spanish crown should feel no qualms in dealing with Indian evil. The Indians could be enslaved and treated as barbarian and savage slaves in order to be civilized and proselytized.

Las Casas disagreed. The Indians have well-established customs and settled ways of life, he argued, they value prudence and have the ability to govern and organize families and cities. They have the Christian virtues of gentleness, peacefulness, simplicity, humility, generosity, and patience, and are waiting to be converted. They look like our father Adam before the Fall, wrote las Casas in his Apologia, they are ‘unwitting’ Christians. In an early definition of humanism, las Casas argued that “all the people of the world are humans under the only one definition of all humans and of each one, that is that they are rational … Thus all races of humankind are one.” 5 Bartholomé de las Casas, Obras Completas , Vol. 7 (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1922), 536–7.  His arguments combined Christian theology and political utility. Respecting local customs is good morality but also good politics: the Indians would convert to Christianity (las Casas’ main concern) but also accept the authority of the Crown and replenish its coffers, if they were made to feel that their traditions, laws, and cultures are respected. But las Casas’ Christian universalism was, like all universalisms, exclusive. He repeatedly condemned “Turks and Moors, the veritable barbarian outcasts of the nations” since they cannot be seen as “unwitting” Christians. An “empirical” universalism of superiority and hierarchy (Sepulveda) and a normative one of truth and love (las Casas) end up being not very different. As Tzvetan Todorov pithily remarks, there is “violence in the conviction that one possesses the truth oneself, whereas this is not the case for others, and that one must furthermore impose that truth on those others.” 6 Todorov, The Conquest of America 166, 168.

The conflicting interpretations of humanity by Sepulveda and las Casas capture the dominant ideologies of Western empires, imperialisms, and colonialisms. At one end, the (racial) other is inhuman or subhuman. This justifies enslavement, atrocities, and even annihilation as strategies of the civilizing mission. At the other end, conquest, occupation, and forceful conversion are strategies of spiritual or material development, of progress and integration of the innocent, naïve, undeveloped others into the main body of humanity.

These two definitions and strategies towards otherness act as supports of western subjectivity. The helplessness, passivity, and inferiority of the “undeveloped” others turns them into our narcissistic mirror-image and potential double. These unfortunates are the infants of humanity. They are victimized and sacrificed by their own radical evildoers; they are rescued by the West who helps them grow, develop and become our likeness. Because the victim is our mirror image, we know what his interest is and impose it “for his own good.” At the other end, the irrational, cruel, victimizing others are projections of the Other of our unconscious. As Slavoj Žižek puts it, “there is a kind of passive exposure to an overwhelming Otherness, which is the very basis of being human … [the inhuman] is marked by a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as ‘humanity’ is inherent to being human.” 7 Slavoj Žižek, “Against Human Rights 56,” New Left Review (July–August 2005), 34.  We have called this abysmal other lurking in the psyche and unsettling the ego various names: God or Satan, barbarian or foreigner, in psychoanalysis the death drive or the Real. Today they have become the “axis of evil,” the “rogue state,” the “bogus refugee,” or the “illegal” migrant. They are contemporary heirs to Sepulveda’s “monkeys,” epochal representatives of inhumanity.

A comparison of the cognitive strategies associated with the Latinate humanitas and the Greek anthropos is instructive. The humanity of humanism (and of the academic Humanities) 8 Costas Douzinas, “For a Humanities of Resistance,” Critical Legal Thinking, December 7, 2010, unites knowing subject and known object following the protocols of self-reflection. The anthropos of physical and social anthropology, on the other hand, is the object only of cognition. Physical anthropology examines bodies, senses, and emotions, the material supports of life. Social anthropology studies diverse non-western peoples, societies, and cultures, but not the human species in its essence or totality. These peoples emerged out of and became the object of observation and study through discovery, conquest, and colonization in the new world, Africa, Asia, or in the peripheries of Europe. As Nishitani Osamu puts it, humanity and anthropos signify two asymmetrical regimes of knowledge. Humanity is civilization, anthropos is outside or before civilization. In our globalized world, the minor literatures of anthropos are examined by comparative literature, which compares “civilization” with lesser cultures.

The gradual decline of Western dominance is changing these hierarchies. Similarly, the disquiet with a normative universalism, based on a false conception of humanity, indicates the rise of local, concrete, and context-bound normativities.

In conclusion, because ‘humanity’ has no fixed meaning, it cannot act as a source of norms. Its meaning and scope keeps changing according to political and ideological priorities. The continuously changing conceptions of humanity are the best manifestations of the metaphysics of an age. Perhaps the time has come for anthropos to replace the human. Perhaps the rights to come will be anthropic (to coin a term) rather than human, expressing and promoting singularities and differences instead of the sameness and equivalences of hitherto dominant identities.

Cos­tas Douz­i­nas is Pro­fessor of Law and Dir­ector of the Birk­beck Insti­tute for the Human­it­ies, Uni­ver­sity of London.

  • 1 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 107.
  • 2 B.L. Ullman, “What are the Humanities?” Journal of Higher Education 17/6 (1946), at 302.
  • 3 H.C. Baldry, The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought , (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1965), 201.
  • 4 Ginés de Sepulveda, Democrates Segundo of De las Justas Causa de la Guerra contra los Indios (Madrid: Institute Fransisco de Vitoria, 1951), 33 quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America trans. Richard Howard (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 153.
  • 5 Bartholomé de las Casas, Obras Completas , Vol. 7 (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1922), 536–7.
  • 6 Todorov, The Conquest of America 166, 168.
  • 7 Slavoj Žižek, “Against Human Rights 56,” New Left Review (July–August 2005), 34.
  • 8 Costas Douzinas, “For a Humanities of Resistance,” Critical Legal Thinking, December 7, 2010,


Good morning Costas! Does the problem lie, as you write, with “the idea of humanity”? Or does it instead lie with isolating and examining the history of ANY social or ethical concept in this step-by-step way? Is there any meaningful normative concept for which we can NOT perform the same kind of history, only to find that it, too, rests on millennia of manipulation, hierarchy and oppression? Suppose I do the same kind of geneology of the concept of “liberation”, or “tolerance”, or “cosmopolitanism”, or “open-mindedness”, or “love”, or “altruism”, or “empathy”, or “non-discrimination”, or “receptiveness”, or indeed even “revolution”. Won’t I obviously get the same kind of result? Does the history of a concept equate with some a priori meaning and necessary destiny? Are we no longer active agents over the concepts we use? Are we no longer able to intervene in history? Perhaps the concept of “human rights” collapses because ANY axiomatised ethical system collapses. Any ethics is always manipulable. Can we, or rather should we try, to imagine some “purer” one that isn’t? Isn’t “purity” the most manipulable notion of all? After Wittgenstein and Heidegger, can any analysis of such a deeply political concept as “humanity” really be plucked out and placed under a historical microscope in such a straightforward way? Is the problem, then, that any isolation of such a concept will inevitably deliver the same result, namely, a necessarily contingent history, which is then presented as a priori and unalterable? Doesn’t this style of analysis fall into the binarist trap it seeks to overcome, namely, of opposing a faulty concept to some un-stated assumption of an impeccable one, a “pure” one? I might even stray so far as to argue that injustice is not, as this analysis suggests, the opposite of justice, but rather its constant product. Hugs from Eric.

PS: As to the conclusion, “Per­haps the rights to come will be anthropic (to coin a term) rather than human, express­ing and pro­mot­ing sin­gu­lar­it­ies and dif­fer­ences instead of the same­ness and equi­val­ences of hitherto dom­in­ant identities.” But don’t countless philosophies promise to “express­ and pro­mot­e sin­gu­lar­it­ies and dif­fer­ences instead of the same­ness and equi­val­ences.” (Some might call it the stock formula of run-of-the-mill liberalism!) How, then, will the “anthropic” avoid the fate of the “human” as narrated here? E

A small historical aside; in a legend recorded in Mesopotamian literature, the Akkadian king Naram Sin is engaged in a battle with the ‘Umman Manda’, incredibly powerful creatures of distinct physiognomy. Wondering if they are humans, he orders one of his officials to try and hit them to see if they bleed and are humans. Indeed, one of the proposed etymologies for their name is ‘humans? maybe’. I guess this shows how ancient is our preoccupation with ‘humanity’ and ‘human nature.’


And what of the ancient Greek word ἄνθρωπος?

“Human­ity is civil­iz­a­tion, anthro­pos is out­side or before civil­iz­a­tion.”

I don’t think that is how the Greeks used ἄνθρωπος at all. And what about the Greek concept of ‘mortals’ (βροτῶν), which includes men both inside and outside civilization. See Book 6 of the Odyssey (for example): ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω; ἦ ῥ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι, ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής;

Plato uses ἄνθρωπος a lot, but he certainly does NOT use it to mean ‘outside or before civilization’.

Can you give examples of where the Greeks used the word this way?

Dingus: Brilliant, and probative, point about Plato. I would argue that Plato has no real concept of “civilisation” at all, and certainly not in the way Aristotle does, or in the way early European modernity would later develop. Aristotle tells what we would today call an “Enlightenment narrative”, clearly referring to “primitive” and “advanced” stages of human society (with Greeks at the summit), and he repeats that point constantly. Plato, by contrast, tends to narrate history far more sceptically (or, as in Τίμαιος, cyclically).

Plato certainly (perhaps self-parodically) constructs notions of superior and inferior humans (infamously in Πολιτεία), but mostly in his oddly meritocratic scheme. He discusses differences between Greeks and non-Greeks, but never in Aristotle’s stringent, emphatic terms, nor does he really share Aristotle’s categorical notions of natural slaves. (Nor of women’s inferiority. After all, a woman can in theory become a philosopher ruler.)

And remember the “mere slave” who performs an extended dialectical operation in Μένων), of the type Plato thought appropriate only to philosophers. Curiously, then, Plato (even if he does pointedly ask whether that slave “speaks Greek”) does not so rigidly construct notions of humanity or civilisation in ethnic terms.

Thanks very much for your observation. Eric

I was thinking about the slave in Meno the other day. It’s a really remarkable and beautiful passage. I don’t think I understand the dialogue – or how that scene in particular fits into the whole corpus – but it would be a rich topic of research re: natural equality. It’s always unclear what Plato is actually saying and how much is ironic or eristic.

Really, the concept “Greek” is not really clear in a lot of ancient sources. It’s definitely non-existent in Homer. When Odysseus shows up somewhere, he doesn’t wonder ‘are they Greeks or not?’, he wonders if they are good to strangers and respect the gods (that is, civilization is defined ethically, not ethnically).

Hello again. I think there’s no doubt that Plato has a strong notion of dialectic as non-eristic (although we could certainly doubt its plausibility!), as emerges, for example, in the contrast with speech-making in Πρωταγόρας. Arguably the criticism of Plato in those “pure” dialectical passages is not against its dialectical artifice per se, but against its dialogical artifice — Socrates makes every point, and the interlocutor mostly just agrees (although I think that pattern does become a bit more complex in some passages in the other dialogues). So many have argued that Plato lacks any real notion of a participatory dialectic, i.e., that his dialectic is really just a monologue. That criticism will later come back to haunt figures as different as Aquinas, Hegel, and, I think, at least some of Marx.

Part of the significance of the slave in Μένων might have to do with Plato’s constant sarcasm about Athenian democracy, and its “free” citizens, having sacrificed any interest in truth-seeking (and therefore in justice), by throwing it open to a “mob” who, within that populist and market-driven context, merely end up seeking individual gain, and end up, so to speak, “lost to truth”, and “lost” to its primary tool, i.e., dialectic.

The character Socrates certainly has a strong notion of dia­lectic as non-​eristic in some dialogues, but I’m hesitant to say what Plato’s position was. The way the dialogues are written seems to undermine the seemingly protreptic nature of the speeches. What do you make of the Euthydemus? Or the horribly unreliable narrator of the Symposium? It’s very unclear to me what Plato was doing.

In any case, the original blog post overstates its case against the Greeks and doesn’t provide evidence for its strong claims. I think it’s clear from Homer (to give one example) that there was an ancient conception of humanity that was not connected to ethnicity or ‘cultural superiority’. The split was between mortals and gods or man and beast. Even the Phaeacians, who are totally cut off from other people and compared to the Cyclops and Giants, are considered part of humanity.

Another (related) question is: how “Platonic” or “Aristotelian” was ancient Athens? How accepted were their ideas? There probably isn’t enough evidence to say.

What I do think is clear is that the ancient world – indeed, even Aristotle himself – was not “Aristotelian” in the same way as his Medieval followers (either Christian or Islamic).

G’morning again. Many 5th century Athenians certainly become chauvinist after the Persian wars. But with important dissenters. Plato, and probably Socrates, pokes fun at Athenian supremicism. They ironise it and parody it. And Plato, like Thucydides, certainly warns against its dangers, even seeing in it a crucial cause of Athens’s demise. Plato’s refusal to qualify Athenians, or even Greeks, as superior, in the categorical way that Aristotle does, is certainly no oversight.

(PS — I certainly agree that Plato and Aristotle do not play the role in Athens that they would later play in the Middle Ages, either in influence or in substance. The staunch democratic faction of Anytus and Meletus would have fallen dumbstruck reading Augustine and Aquinas!).

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Theses and dissertations are a key source for finding the latest scholarship, additional material such as data sets, and detailed research. They can also help you find out what has been written on a topic, uncover other sources through citations, and get inspiration for your own research project. Use the resources below to search for PhD theses from universities in the UK and abroad. If you're a PhD student yourself, you can use the resources to make sure that your topic hasn't already been written about by other doctoral students.   

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The Library received all Ph.D. and M.Phil. theses and M.Sc. (Regulation 3.5.) theses up to 30 September 2016. Theses submitted after this date are kept in the University of Essex Research Repository . We do not normally hold dissertations and theses connected with other degrees - the exception being LL.Ms. All of our physical (print) theses are kept in Store and can only be consulted in the library - you'll need to use the online store request form or fill in a form at the library helpdesk to request them.

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Essay on Human Rights: Samples in 500 and 1500

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Essay on Human Rights

Essay writing is an integral part of the school curriculum and various academic and competitive exams like IELTS , TOEFL , SAT , UPSC , etc. It is designed to test your command of the English language and how well you can gather your thoughts and present them in a structure with a flow. To master your ability to write an essay, you must read as much as possible and practise on any given topic. This blog brings you a detailed guide on how to write an essay on Human Rights , with useful essay samples on Human rights.

This Blog Includes:

The basic human rights, 200 words essay on human rights, 500 words essay on human rights, 500+ words essay on human rights in india, 1500 words essay on human rights, importance of human rights, essay on human rights pdf.

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What are Human Rights

Human rights mark everyone as free and equal, irrespective of age, gender, caste, creed, religion and nationality. The United Nations adopted human rights in light of the atrocities people faced during the Second World War. On the 10th of December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Its adoption led to the recognition of human rights as the foundation for freedom, justice and peace for every individual. Although it’s not legally binding, most nations have incorporated these human rights into their constitutions and domestic legal frameworks. Human rights safeguard us from discrimination and guarantee that our most basic needs are protected.

Did you know that the 10th of December is celebrated as Human Rights Day ?

Before we move on to the essays on human rights, let’s check out the basics of what they are.

Human Rights

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Here is a 200-word short sample essay on basic Human Rights.

Human rights are a set of rights given to every human being regardless of their gender, caste, creed, religion, nation, location or economic status. These are said to be moral principles that illustrate certain standards of human behaviour. Protected by law , these rights are applicable everywhere and at any time. Basic human rights include the right to life, right to a fair trial, right to remedy by a competent tribunal, right to liberty and personal security, right to own property, right to education, right of peaceful assembly and association, right to marriage and family, right to nationality and freedom to change it, freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination, freedom from slavery, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of movement, right of opinion and information, right to adequate living standard and freedom from interference with privacy, family, home and correspondence.

Also Read: Law Courses

Check out this 500-word long essay on Human Rights.

Every person has dignity and value. One of the ways that we recognise the fundamental worth of every person is by acknowledging and respecting their human rights. Human rights are a set of principles concerned with equality and fairness. They recognise our freedom to make choices about our lives and develop our potential as human beings. They are about living a life free from fear, harassment or discrimination.

Human rights can broadly be defined as the basic rights that people worldwide have agreed are essential. These include the right to life, the right to a fair trial, freedom from torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to health, education and an adequate standard of living. These human rights are the same for all people everywhere – men and women, young and old, rich and poor, regardless of our background, where we live, what we think or believe. This basic property is what makes human rights’ universal’.

Human rights connect us all through a shared set of rights and responsibilities. People’s ability to enjoy their human rights depends on other people respecting those rights. This means that human rights involve responsibility and duties towards other people and the community. Individuals have a responsibility to ensure that they exercise their rights with consideration for the rights of others. For example, when someone uses their right to freedom of speech, they should do so without interfering with someone else’s right to privacy.

Governments have a particular responsibility to ensure that people can enjoy their rights. They must establish and maintain laws and services that enable people to enjoy a life in which their rights are respected and protected. For example, the right to education says that everyone is entitled to a good education. Therefore, governments must provide good quality education facilities and services to their people. If the government fails to respect or protect their basic human rights, people can take it into account.

Values of tolerance, equality and respect can help reduce friction within society. Putting human rights ideas into practice can help us create the kind of society we want to live in. There has been tremendous growth in how we think about and apply human rights ideas in recent decades. This growth has had many positive results – knowledge about human rights can empower individuals and offer solutions for specific problems.

Human rights are an important part of how people interact with others at all levels of society – in the family, the community, school, workplace, politics and international relations. Therefore, people everywhere must strive to understand what human rights are. When people better understand human rights, it is easier for them to promote justice and the well-being of society. 

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Here is a human rights essay focused on India.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It has been rightly proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Created with certain unalienable rights….” Similarly, the Indian Constitution has ensured and enshrined Fundamental rights for all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, religion, colour, sex or nationality. These basic rights, commonly known as human rights, are recognised the world over as basic rights with which every individual is born.

In recognition of human rights, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made on the 10th of December, 1948. This declaration is the basic instrument of human rights. Even though this declaration has no legal bindings and authority, it forms the basis of all laws on human rights. The necessity of formulating laws to protect human rights is now being felt all over the world. According to social thinkers, the issue of human rights became very important after World War II concluded. It is important for social stability both at the national and international levels. Wherever there is a breach of human rights, there is conflict at one level or the other.

Given the increasing importance of the subject, it becomes necessary that educational institutions recognise the subject of human rights as an independent discipline. The course contents and curriculum of the discipline of human rights may vary according to the nature and circumstances of a particular institution. Still, generally, it should include the rights of a child, rights of minorities, rights of the needy and the disabled, right to live, convention on women, trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation etc.

Since the formation of the United Nations , the promotion and protection of human rights have been its main focus. The United Nations has created a wide range of mechanisms for monitoring human rights violations. The conventional mechanisms include treaties and organisations, U.N. special reporters, representatives and experts and working groups. Asian countries like China argue in favour of collective rights. According to Chinese thinkers, European countries lay stress upon individual rights and values while Asian countries esteem collective rights and obligations to the family and society as a whole.

With the freedom movement the world over after World War II, the end of colonisation also ended the policy of apartheid and thereby the most aggressive violation of human rights. With the spread of education, women are asserting their rights. Women’s movements play an important role in spreading the message of human rights. They are fighting for their rights and supporting the struggle for human rights of other weaker and deprived sections like bonded labour, child labour, landless labour, unemployed persons, Dalits and elderly people.

Unfortunately, violation of human rights continues in most parts of the world. Ethnic cleansing and genocide can still be seen in several parts of the world. Large sections of the world population are deprived of the necessities of life i.e. food, shelter and security of life. Right to minimum basic needs viz. Work, health care, education and shelter are denied to them. These deprivations amount to the negation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Also Read: Human Rights Courses

Check out this detailed 1500-word essay on human rights.

The human right to live and exist, the right to equality, including equality before the law, non-discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, and equality of opportunity in matters of employment, the right to freedom of speech and expression, assembly, association, movement, residence, the right to practice any profession or occupation, the right against exploitation, prohibiting all forms of forced labour, child labour and trafficking in human beings, the right to freedom of conscience, practice and propagation of religion and the right to legal remedies for enforcement of the above are basic human rights. These rights and freedoms are the very foundations of democracy.

Obviously, in a democracy, the people enjoy the maximum number of freedoms and rights. Besides these are political rights, which include the right to contest an election and vote freely for a candidate of one’s choice. Human rights are a benchmark of a developed and civilised society. But rights cannot exist in a vacuum. They have their corresponding duties. Rights and duties are the two aspects of the same coin.

Liberty never means license. Rights presuppose the rule of law, where everyone in the society follows a code of conduct and behaviour for the good of all. It is the sense of duty and tolerance that gives meaning to rights. Rights have their basis in the ‘live and let live’ principle. For example, my right to speech and expression involves my duty to allow others to enjoy the same freedom of speech and expression. Rights and duties are inextricably interlinked and interdependent. A perfect balance is to be maintained between the two. Whenever there is an imbalance, there is chaos.

A sense of tolerance, propriety and adjustment is a must to enjoy rights and freedom. Human life sans basic freedom and rights is meaningless. Freedom is the most precious possession without which life would become intolerable, a mere abject and slavish existence. In this context, Milton’s famous and oft-quoted lines from his Paradise Lost come to mind: “To reign is worth ambition though in hell/Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

However, liberty cannot survive without its corresponding obligations and duties. An individual is a part of society in which he enjoys certain rights and freedom only because of the fulfilment of certain duties and obligations towards others. Thus, freedom is based on mutual respect’s rights. A fine balance must be maintained between the two, or there will be anarchy and bloodshed. Therefore, human rights can best be preserved and protected in a society steeped in morality, discipline and social order.

Violation of human rights is most common in totalitarian and despotic states. In the theocratic states, there is much persecution, and violation in the name of religion and the minorities suffer the most. Even in democracies, there is widespread violation and infringement of human rights and freedom. The women, children and the weaker sections of society are victims of these transgressions and violence.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights’ main concern is to protect and promote human rights and freedom in the world’s nations. In its various sessions held from time to time in Geneva, it adopts various measures to encourage worldwide observations of these basic human rights and freedom. It calls on its member states to furnish information regarding measures that comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whenever there is a complaint of a violation of these rights. In addition, it reviews human rights situations in various countries and initiates remedial measures when required.

The U.N. Commission was much concerned and dismayed at the apartheid being practised in South Africa till recently. The Secretary-General then declared, “The United Nations cannot tolerate apartheid. It is a legalised system of racial discrimination, violating the most basic human rights in South Africa. It contradicts the letter and spirit of the United Nations Charter. That is why over the last forty years, my predecessors and I have urged the Government of South Africa to dismantle it.”

Now, although apartheid is no longer practised in that country, other forms of apartheid are being blatantly practised worldwide. For example, sex apartheid is most rampant. Women are subject to abuse and exploitation. They are not treated equally and get less pay than their male counterparts for the same jobs. In employment, promotions, possession of property etc., they are most discriminated against. Similarly, the rights of children are not observed properly. They are forced to work hard in very dangerous situations, sexually assaulted and exploited, sold and bonded for labour.

The Commission found that religious persecution, torture, summary executions without judicial trials, intolerance, slavery-like practices, kidnapping, political disappearance, etc., are being practised even in the so-called advanced countries and societies. The continued acts of extreme violence, terrorism and extremism in various parts of the world like Pakistan, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Somalia, Algeria, Lebanon, Chile, China, and Myanmar, etc., by the governments, terrorists, religious fundamentalists, and mafia outfits, etc., is a matter of grave concern for the entire human race.

Violation of freedom and rights by terrorist groups backed by states is one of the most difficult problems society faces. For example, Pakistan has been openly collaborating with various terrorist groups, indulging in extreme violence in India and other countries. In this regard the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva adopted a significant resolution, which was co-sponsored by India, focusing on gross violation of human rights perpetrated by state-backed terrorist groups.

The resolution expressed its solidarity with the victims of terrorism and proposed that a U.N. Fund for victims of terrorism be established soon. The Indian delegation recalled that according to the Vienna Declaration, terrorism is nothing but the destruction of human rights. It shows total disregard for the lives of innocent men, women and children. The delegation further argued that terrorism cannot be treated as a mere crime because it is systematic and widespread in its killing of civilians.

Violation of human rights, whether by states, terrorists, separatist groups, armed fundamentalists or extremists, is condemnable. Regardless of the motivation, such acts should be condemned categorically in all forms and manifestations, wherever and by whomever they are committed, as acts of aggression aimed at destroying human rights, fundamental freedom and democracy. The Indian delegation also underlined concerns about the growing connection between terrorist groups and the consequent commission of serious crimes. These include rape, torture, arson, looting, murder, kidnappings, blasts, and extortion, etc.

Violation of human rights and freedom gives rise to alienation, dissatisfaction, frustration and acts of terrorism. Governments run by ambitious and self-seeking people often use repressive measures and find violence and terror an effective means of control. However, state terrorism, violence, and human freedom transgressions are very dangerous strategies. This has been the background of all revolutions in the world. Whenever there is systematic and widespread state persecution and violation of human rights, rebellion and revolution have taken place. The French, American, Russian and Chinese Revolutions are glowing examples of human history.

The first war of India’s Independence in 1857 resulted from long and systematic oppression of the Indian masses. The rapidly increasing discontent, frustration and alienation with British rule gave rise to strong national feelings and demand for political privileges and rights. Ultimately the Indian people, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, made the British leave India, setting the country free and independent.

Human rights and freedom ought to be preserved at all costs. Their curtailment degrades human life. The political needs of a country may reshape Human rights, but they should not be completely distorted. Tyranny, regimentation, etc., are inimical of humanity and should be resisted effectively and united. The sanctity of human values, freedom and rights must be preserved and protected. Human Rights Commissions should be established in all countries to take care of human freedom and rights. In cases of violation of human rights, affected individuals should be properly compensated, and it should be ensured that these do not take place in future.

These commissions can become effective instruments in percolating the sensitivity to human rights down to the lowest levels of governments and administrations. The formation of the National Human Rights Commission in October 1993 in India is commendable and should be followed by other countries.

Also Read: Law Courses in India

Human rights are of utmost importance to seek basic equality and human dignity. Human rights ensure that the basic needs of every human are met. They protect vulnerable groups from discrimination and abuse, allow people to stand up for themselves, and follow any religion without fear and give them the freedom to express their thoughts freely. In addition, they grant people access to basic education and equal work opportunities. Thus implementing these rights is crucial to ensure freedom, peace and safety.

Human Rights Day is annually celebrated on the 10th of December.

Human Rights Day is celebrated to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UNGA in 1948.

Some of the common Human Rights are the right to life and liberty, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom from slavery and torture and the right to work and education.

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