Human rights

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Human rights (natural rights) are rights which some hold to be "inalienable" and belonging to all humans; according to natural law. Such rights are believed, by proponents, to be necessary for freedom and the maintenance of a "reasonable" quality of life.

Inalienable rights cannot be bestowed, granted, limited, bartered away, or sold away (eg, one cannot sell oneself into slavery). Inalienable rights can only be secured...or violated.

Human rights can be divided into two categories; positive and negative human rights. Every negative human right can be expressed as a positive human right, but not vice versa. For example, the right of a newborn to a caring parent can only be expressed positively.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In the United Nations made the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, [1] which stated:

Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

It is an over-arching set of standards by which Governments, organisations and individuals should measure their behaviour towards each other. The Declaration introduced the notion in the public realm that rights had a moral dimension, independent of and overriding where relevant the legislature or government which granted specific legal rights. The notion was not new, e. g. Thomas Paine had argued in this way in his book The Rights of Man.

Other general Declarations have followed, for example the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, [2].

Origins of Rights

Positive human rights follow mainly from the Rousseauian Continental legal tradition, and are things to which every person is entitled and for which every state is obligated. Examples of such rights (not all are universally agreed upon) include: the rights to education, to a livelihood, and legal equality. Positive rights have been codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in many 20th century constitutions.

Negative human rights follow mainly from the Anglo-American legal tradition, and are rights which denote actions that a government should not take. These are codified in the United States Bill of Rights and the English Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms include freedoms of speech, religion and assembly.

There are a number of theories of where rights come from. The theory espoused by the US Declaration of Independence and ingrained in Anglo-American legal thought is that rights arise from natural law.

Religious societies tend to justify human rights through religious arguments. For example, liberal movements within Islam have tried to use the story of Adam in the Qur'an to support human rights in a Muslim context.

There are a number of controversies regarding human rights. One is what rights are included as fundamental human rights, or even if such rights exist at all. Another controversy is how best to enforce human rights and in particular the relationship between human rights and national sovereignty. One point of view is that human rights are universal and override national sovereignty, therefore it is proper for any national to enforce human rights through international courts or domestic law.

An opposing view is that human rights are secondary to a country's interest, that a powerful country can dictate which rights they consider important against less powerful countries. This is considered to be a form of imperialism.

Canada attempts to resolve this tension by allowing legislative primacy on a temporary and renewable basis notwithstanding that the law infringes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Hate Crimes Laws

With the advent of the concept of human rights, various countries have attempted to enact laws against what are called hate crimes. A hate crime is defined as a crime committed with direct influence by the minority status of the victim. A hate crime law would bring greater penalty to the perpetrator based on the hateful intent.

Conservatives in the United States often oppose hate crime laws, stating that imposing a greater penaty on an act committed in hate would thus make hating illegal. They feel this to be a direct infringement on First Amendment rights.

Liberals often support hate crime laws, stating that by enacting them individuals would face greater discouragement from committing hate crimes. They also point out that all laws are subjective, and that if society can determine that one crime deserves more punishment than another (ie: murder vs. involuntary manslaughter,) then it can also determine what motivations deserve more stringent punishments.


  1. United Nations - Human Rights
  2. UNICEF - rights of the child

External links

  • University of Leicester, UK, list of sources and links.
  • European Social Charter
  • A Muslim approach to human rights from LiberalIslam
  • Health from a Human Rights Perspective

See also:

Human Rights Organizations

External References