What is characteristic about Human Rights?

Published January 28, 2015-Updated Aug 2023

The vulture is waiting for the little girl to die. She collapsed on her way to a food distribution center. This is not a photo from a movie scene; it is a snapshot of reality. When the picture was first published in the New York Times, it received much attention. The South African photographer Kevin Carter, who took it during the war in Sudan in 1993, received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for it. Several months later, he committed suicide, overwhelmed by the human horror he had witnessed. 

Atrocities and disregard for human life are an integral part of our history and politics, and even observers cannot bear so much suffering. 

What creates the dignity of a human being? Since World War II, we consider universal human rights as a foundation for humanity, but what are these human rights? They are not laws – they are a set of demands for the treatment of human beings. These demands have gradually been codified into laws in different societies and through a system of international treaties. As rights, they are unique, and this article will explore the characteristics of Human rights. 

The current chapter of the story begins with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; created in 1948 as a response to the horrors of the Holocaust. The Universal Declaration is a founding document of the United Nations, and it initiates a discourse that cuts across economic, racial, ethnic, religious, or gender-based divisions in societies. It also transcends the lines of nation-states, because it firmly starts with the concept of one human race, where every member deserves to be treated with the same respect. Because this discourse ignores the particularities of economic or political systems or the complicated historical divisions that exist in many societies, it may seem idealistic, but this is also its strength. By ignoring particular social and cultural conditions, and simply defining a set of minimal standards for a human life lived in dignity and respect, the human rights discourse anticipates a future that becomes a model for the present. It sets norms and treats them as politically attainable, not just as lofty ideals. This approach has worked, not so much through the initiation of strong political actions, but through the force of arguments against the deeply ingrained unjust social conditions that exist everywhere. Human rights advocacy has become a fixture in political controversies. As a set of demands for the treatment of individual human beings it generates pressure on existing regimes and their policies, and it instills a sense of expectation in people all over the world. These expectations create a political force-field that no government can ignore in the long run. It is one of the main functions of international human rights to regulate the behavior of governments.

Characteristics of Human Rights

The human rights debate is a discourse where politics, ethics, religion, history, and philosophy intersect. Attacks against the universality of these claims are attempts to erode human rights; the full realization of these ideas still remains an elusive goal. 

Short History of Human Rights

Which movements, ideas, and events have contributed to the history and development of the concept of human rights?  The following list is very selective; it shows some historical highlights that manifest the trend that runs through the Western legal and philosophical traditions.

Religious Foundations: Traditional Religions support ideas that the human person has worth and value and should be treated with a measure of dignity and respect. This leads to the idea that there are enduring standards of morality and justice against which to evaluate people’s actions and the laws of communities.

However, the emphasis in religion is on duties, not rights. For example, the Ten Commandments prescribe what we ought to do—not that to which we are entitled. Implicit in the idea that we have duties is the idea that others are entitled to be treated as rightsholders, or persons.

With the development of Christianity, ideas of universality and equality emerge along with the concern for the severely disenfranchised. Christians believe that all people are created by God; therefore they are entitled to decent treatment by the existing powers. These are revolutionary ideas that have shaped the ethical foundations of our culture.

The Middle Ages: This period of European history is characterized by the struggle between Islam and Christianity and the domination of the Catholic Church. It was also a time of rivalry between kingdoms, warlords, military conflicts and wars in Europe, and crusades against Islam in the Middle East. 

To finance his wars, King John of England, in order to raise cash from his wealthy subjects (earls, lords, dukes, etc.) agreed to recognize their property rights, guaranteed freedom of movement for the purpose of trade and commerce, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. This marks the emergence of the Magna Carta (1215), a document that spelled out the duties that nobles owed to the King and God, and—importantly—the rights owed to these subjects. It is worthwhile to note that the idea of rights emerges first as a means by which the upper classes protect their property and freedom. The idea of rights will expand historically as lower classes acquire more influence, economic power, and social standing

The Period of Revolutions: English Bill of Rights (1688-89) rejects absolute monarchy and establishes a constitutional monarchy that must acknowledge the rights of British citizens to run for seats in Parliament (this marks the beginning of the notion of “freedom of speech,” i.e., right to debate in Parliament), bear arms in self-defense, and to be free of cruel and unusual punishment (right to trial). The aim is to restrict arbitrary rules by a monarch. This widens the scope and number of the legal rights of citizens. Rights are still primarily those of aristocrats, but the idea covers more individuals than it did at the time of the Magna Carta. This is the seed that will grow in the following centuries.

The English philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) is an important landmark: he articulates rights based on commands of “natural law” and proclaims that there are natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Government is formed to protect those rights: this is its sole justification, according to Locke. Locke was an important philosophical influence on the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (Locke owned property in America). The other important idea is that governments should be formed based on the consent of the governed.

America’s Declaration of Independence (1776) is a political, not legal document: it demands rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness”).

Another important event overturning monarchies was the French Revolution with its Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789.

The legal foundations of the United States were shaped by the War of Independence The birth of the nation brought us the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Government is devised as a system of checks and balances, which will further protect the rights of citizens; the authority is derived from the governed (as in Locke).

Bill of Rights: the vast majority of rights relate to due process that protects all individuals, even though at the time it applied mostly to white, property-owning men. It took major movements and political struggles to include all citizens of the United States. 

The First Amendment of the US Constitution is the hallmark of the American contribution to contemporary human rights theory. Here is the text: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

This explicitly guarantees the rights to free exercise of religion (this was a reaction to religious wars in England), freedom of speech, and the press, rights to assemble peaceably,  and to petition to government.

Slavery: It took a Civil War in the United States to abolish slavery (1861-1865.) Europe banned the slave trade between the 1830s to 1860s. After long struggles and much suffering, the ideas of individual and human rights prevailed. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863) declared slavery illegal.

Industrial Revolution: During the period of industrialization, a middle class emerged, but it also generated great wealth disparities and thus begins the rise of labor unions (late 1800s). They try to protect what rights’ scholars refer to as “second generation” claims to socio-economic rights, such as to subsistence income, basic social services like education, public health and safety measures such as water treatment and vaccinations. Most laborers initially worked in horrendous “sweatshop” conditions. The idea that there are second generation rights still remains a contested notion. The nineteenth century also saw the rise of the suffragettes, who protested gender inequality and the lack of rights of women to vote, among other things.

The 20th Century: In the 1920s, the League of Nations forms: some humane labor laws and factory safety regulations are enacted; the struggle for second-generation rights led to strikes, unions, and a few concessions by capitalists who feared socialist revolts. Women won the right to vote in the US in 1920, with the 19th Amendment.

The stock market crash of 1929 and Great Depression of the 1930s (25% of Americans out of work) led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal  - the beginning of unemployment insurance, public works (“welfare” state); “big government” and mixed economies (i.e., capitalism but with protection from its ravages); the goal is to provide a social subsistence minimum. The scope of the welfare state widens: subsidized housing, new colleges and roads, food and health care subsidies, more generous unemployment insurance and pensions regardless of the ups and downs of free-market business cycles - the goal is to prevent citizens from falling beneath the floor of a defined social minimum. We see a clear recognition of something like second generation rights - again this remains a hotly contested idea, especially today as we see how many of these protections have eroded.

Second World War: The next milestone is a reaction to the rise of Hitler (and fascism in Europe), who denied human rights and promoted a doctrine of racial and ethnic superiority that led to the Holocaust. After the war, the Nuremberg trials established the first international criminal trials for those committing massive human rights violations; the Geneva conventions (1949) are formulated to regulate conduct during war, e.g., a prohibition on torture (the issue returns again and again as a result of the treatment of detainees and prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo, Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere).

The United Nations forms. The Security Council of the UN is not – like some of its critics assume – a world government. It is a voluntary alliance, whose core commitment is to peace and human rights protection. Its founding document is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Again, there is a split over first generation rights (due process, free speech, civil and political rights) and second generation rights (socio-economic). The UN Declaration supports both, but the U.S. tends to support only the first.

Cold War and Decolonization: the idea of First, Second, and Third Worlds emerges. The question now becomes: How do we manage to get along peacefully as societies become more diverse? How do we cherish both individual and group differences and yet maintain social cohesion and order necessary for stability and security? How should we use institutions to preserve democracy and majority rule and yet secure fair treatment for minorities? Do groups also have rights, or can only individuals be rights holders?

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of contemporary feminism and an environmental movement—women’s rights to reproductive control, rights to clean environment. The recognition of diversity and environmental rights are connected to the idea of “third generation rights”.

The 1980s sees the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the “welfare state” (programs put in place during the New Deal era. This debate still goes on and revolves around second generation rights). 

Globalization: Communism’s collapse left capitalism as the only plausible method for organizing societies. We see more mobility, immigration, and refugee crises. The economic divide between first and third worlds raises issues having to do with all three generations of rights, but especially economic entitlements due to the huge wealth disparity between first and third world countries.

In the 1990s, the rise of ethnic nationalisms and more genocide (Bosnia, Rwanda) leads to the treaty that establishes the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998.

Debates continue regarding full specification of the foundational objects of human rights. These rights build upon each other; therefore we talk about five generations of rights. First are security rights (1), then subsistence (2), liberty (3), equality (4), and finally recognition (5). Substantial issues of equality and non-discrimination remain unsolved; these involve references to gender, sexual orientation, ethnic differences, and economic disparities.