Frequently Asked Questions

This section provides answers to some of most frequently asked questions about human rights:



What are human rights?

What is the source of human rights?

What is meant by the universality of human rights?

Are human rights solely a Western concept?

How can we speak of universal human rights norms in a world of cultural diversity?

Who defines human rights?

Are some human rights more important than others?

Is the list of human rights fixed for all time?

Who bears the duties relating to human rights?

What are the duties of states under international human rights conventions?

Can human rights be legally enforced?

How is a state's compliance with its obligations under international human rights conventions monitored?

 

What are human rights?
The term "human rights" refers to those fundamental rights and freedoms essential for human survival, liberty and dignity that have been recognised by the global community and protected by international legal instruments. Human rights are universal. They are the birth-right of every man, woman and child.

What is the source of human rights?

Although legal instruments at the international and national levels have recognised and confirmed human rights, the law is not the source of these rights. At a philosophical level, human rights are not granted by any human authority or government, but are derived from the essential dignity and nature of humankind.

There are differing views about the original source of human rights. Some philosophers believe that they derive from human conscience and reason, reflected in the constant striving of the human race for justice and freedom. Moral and religious thinkers have stressed the inherent dignity and equality of all humans, whether they regard this as stemming from the dignity of all creation, or from the creation of humans in the image of God.

These various ideas were captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1948, which states that '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'.

So today, the question "where do human rights come from?" can be answered in this way: Human rights arise from the recognition of their existence by the world community, expressed through numerous UN and other international documents and adopted by states from every region of the world, representing the rich diversity of the world's faiths and cultures.

What is meant by the universality of human rights?

Since human rights stem from the inherent dignity of all humans then they must adhere to every man, women and child merely by virtue of their being human. Human rights should be enjoyed irrespective of any distinguishing characteristics such as sex, race, colour, religion, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Similarly, human rights belong to all human beings, in every state, whatever the level of economic development or the political system in place in their country. This is what is meant by the term 'the universality of human rights' - a concept of fundamental significance to human rights protection.

The universal nature of human rights distinguishes them from the rights that are granted by a state on the basis of citizenship; and from any specific legal rights that are granted to particular members of society, or rights arising out of a contractual agreement.

Are human rights solely a Western concept?

The global consensus on human rights has its roots in the philosophies, religions and cultures throughout the world. Although historically the political reforms in Europe and North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth century played an important role in shaping modern concepts of human rights and democracy, these have by no means been the only influences.

The modern theory of human rights goes far beyond the confines of liberal rights theory associated with the West and owes much to the influence of philosophies and values from elsewhere in the world and to notions of equity and social justice shared by many cultures. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed as a 'common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations', and states from all regions of the world have contributed to the drafting and implementation of subsequent international human rights legal texts.

The fact that 171 states took part in the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and unanimously adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, is proof that the human rights regime is now genuinely accepted worldwide. Indeed, one human rights treaty - The Convention on the Rights of the Child - has been signed by every state in the world except two, Somalia and the United States of America

How can we speak of universal human rights norms in a world of cultural diversity?
Recognition of the immense cultural diversity in the world leads some people to question whether it is possible to talk about the 'universal' system of values on which human rights norms are based. Some have used the theory of 'cultural relativity' to question the universal nature of human rights, referring to the differences in the values acceptable within different groups of people and which have framed their cultures and traditions.

However, individuals from societies throughout the world do recognise human rights, and the states participating in the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 agreed that 'the universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question'. Further, faiths and cultures throughout the world share core values which underpin international human rights norms.

To hold states accountable for their performance with relation to global human rights standards is, therefore, not to impose the value system of any one part of the world on another, but to refer to universal values, based on the distilled knowledge and wisdom of all of our cultures..

Who defines human rights?
Clearly, if human rights are to be effectively protected it is essential that there is a common understanding of what amounts to a human right. One of the earliest tasks of the UN was to compile a list of internationally recognised human rights, enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights..

This landmark document has since been given legal force in a series of global legal human rights instruments (known as 'treaties', 'conventions' or 'covenants') signed and adopted by UN member states. States that sign these treaties (known as 'States Parties') voluntarily undertake the obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights enshrined in those treaties for everyone under their jurisdiction, without discrimination. .

There are six treaties known as the core human rights treaties:.

* The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966 and which entered into force 23 March, 1976;
* The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted in 1966, entered into force 3 January, 1976;
* The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted in 1965, entered into force 4 January, 1969;
* The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted in 1979, entered into force 3 September, 1981;
* The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted in 1984, entered into force 26 June, 1987;
* The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, entered into force 2 September, 1990.

There are also regional human rights mechanisms. The Council of Europe, the Organisation of American States, the Organisation of African Unity and the League of Arab States have all adopted regional instruments to translate the international texts into additional obligations binding on States Parties within the region.

In addition, many States Parties to these international and regional instruments have fulfilled their legal obligation to incorporate the rights enshrined within those instruments into national law, adopting national human rights laws or 'bills of rights' and mechanisms providing access to legal redress at the national or local level.

Are some human rights more important than others?
There is no 'hierarchy' of rights and all rights should be regarded as being of equal priority. Denial of one right invariably impedes enjoyment of others, leading to the recognition by UN Member States, in the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, that human rights are indivisible, interdependent and inter-related.

Is the list of human rights fixed for all time?
Although the international human rights community is trying to focus attention on the implementation and enforcement of existing standards, new texts are constantly being developed to address matters of current concern.

In addition, a number of UN Conferences have developed international programmes of action addressed at overcoming inequities so that all people might live in accordance with their rights and dignity. Whilst not having the force of international law, these political commitments should be read together with the international human rights legal instruments.

In such a manner, the scope and understanding of human rights is developing. For example, a series of international conferences have helped to clarify the right to water and sanitation. In this way, the subject of human rights is both concrete - confirmed in international law - and dynamic - able to develop in accordance with recognition of the need.

Who bears the duties relating to human rights?
The international human rights framework has been developed as a part of public international law. The conventions mentioned above have been voluntarily adopted by states as a form of contractual obligations towards other states. Thus, the primary obligation for the implementation of human rights rests with the States Parties to the various instruments.

This is not to say that individuals have no responsibilities, rather that these duties are governed by a different branch of law. However, states are obliged to protect human rights from abuse by third parties and should introduce national laws to govern the behaviour of individuals and groups.

In addition, attempts are currently being made within the human rights community to find ways of extending human rights responsibility to corporations, particularly multi-national companies, and to the international financial institutions.

What are the duties of states under international human rights conventions?
Once a state has adopted a particular convention it is obliged to promote and protect the human rights covered by the convention. The state is obliged to secure the human rights of all people within its jurisdiction and not just its own citizens. However, under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, developing countries may determine to what extent they will guarantee to non-nationals the economic rights recognised in the Covenant.

The precise obligations of states vary from treaty to treaty but in general, States Parties can be regarded as obliged to respect the human rights of all people within their jurisdiction, to protect individuals from abuse by third parties and to fulfil the rights contained within the treaty. The latter includes the obligations to facilitate, promote and provide those rights.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises that States Parties may not be able to ensure instantrealisation of the rights contained within the Covenant, including the right to water, due to the limits of available resources. Nevertheless, it obliges states to take steps towards achieving progressively the full realisation of economic, social and cultural rights.

Can human rights be legally enforced?
When states adopt an international or regional human rights convention, they undertake the obligation to incorporate the human rights enshrined within that convention into national laws and policies. When States Parties comply with this obligation, human rights are enshrined in national law. This should ensure that mechanisms are established for providing all victims of human rights violations, without discrimination, with access to legal redress.

In addition, the UN human rights system has several procedures allowing individuals to make formal complaints of human rights violations but these procedures rely more on political pressure than legal enforcement.

How is a state's compliance with its obligations under international human rights conventions monitored?
The UN human rights system has several mechanisms for monitoring the compliance of States Parties with their obligations under human rights treaties. These include, for example: monitoring committees established under treaties, to which States Parties are obliged to report on steps taken to comply with their obligations; and special procedures, such as the use of 'working groups' or independent experts, who monitor the human rights situation in specific countries or on specific themes.

In addition, civil society groups around the world undertake human rights monitoring, including both the monitoring of human rights violations and the monitoring of progress made towards the realisation of human rights. There are several opportunities for these groups to provide input into the UN human rights monitoring system.

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