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What are Human Rights?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Human rights are a set of basic rights that many people believe belong to all humans by birthright. The concept is ancient, although the term only entered usage in the 1940s. Because many people, especially in the West, feel very strongly about human rights, a number of measures have been undertaken to protect them. An international organization, the United Nations, has a large division related to their protection.

The idea that people are entitled to a few basic rights by nature of their humanity is ancient. Many historical documents have codified some of these basic rights. Unfortunately, there is also a long history of neglecting these rights for certain groups. Many slave-owning societies, for example, felt passionately enough about human rights to include them in their legislation, and slaves were excepted because they were believed to be less than human.

In the 1940s, the Second World War called a great deal of attention to the concept. Many nations were deeply concerned by the actions of the Axis Powers, which greatly abridged human rights for a number of people, most prominently followers of the Jewish faith. At the close of the war, the United Nations was founded, and this became one of the major issues that the organization focused on. By 1948, the United Nations had issued a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asking all member nations to sign it and defend the rights described therein.

As a general rule, most proponents of human rights believe that humans are entitled to their lives and liberty. In addition, humans should be able to think and communicate as they please, as these issues are very tied in with a sense of liberty. Finally, all humans should be entitled to equality before the law. Many people also believe in a number of additional legal protections, including prohibitions on slavery and torture. In addition, humans and governments have a duty to protect the rights of all people.

When a basic tenet of these rights is abused, it is termed a human rights violation. Unfortunately, many countries commit such violations, ranging from execution of criminals for trivial crimes to the extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists. Many people report them in the hopes of putting a stop to such violations, sometimes at risk of their lives. These people hope that human rights may become universal someday without the need for monitors and whistleblowers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By sunshine31 — On Oct 04, 2010

Suntan12-I totally agree. I heard about that story. I also heard about the hikers that accidentally crossed the Iraq border into Iran and had been jailed for one year because the Iranian government said that they were spies, even though there is no proof.

These three Americans were jailed with no judicial process or the right to seek an attorney. The female hiker was recently released, but the other two hikers remained jailed.

This is really a shame. People don’t realize that many parts of the world are very different than the United States. There are some parts of the world were there are no jury trials, only a trial by judge. I am so grateful to be American.

By suntan12 — On Oct 04, 2010

SauteePan-There is a case right now out of Iran, in which a woman is charged with adultery, although there is no proof. She was given the death penalty which is death by stoning.

This is a very cruel and inhumane way of executing someone. There actually such public outcry for this woman and many leaders have even offered political asylum to the woman, but the Iranian president declined the offer.

The woman has not been executed and hopefully she will be able to leave this repressive regime. The brutality that many women face around the around should make all of us grateful to be Americans.

By SauteePan — On Oct 04, 2010

Moldova-In this part of the world there are countries that just recently allowed women to work and allowed girls to be educated in school. Women in many of these cultures do not have freedom to choose their preferred religion.

Sharia law, for example actually allows the execution of a family member if they convert to another religion. It also allows a husband to execute a wife should she be rumored to have committed adultery.

By Moldova — On Oct 04, 2010

Sunny27- There are many countries in the world where there are no human rights protections.

Cuba is a perfect example. People can not speak freely about their disagreement with the government. They are actually jailed and if the comments are egregious enough they may be executed.

There are other parts of the world where human rights are non existent like in many Middle Eastern countries with respect to women.

By Sunny27 — On Oct 04, 2010

Cafe41- There have been many Cuban rafters that had to be rescued by the Coast Guard and did not reach US. Soil. These Cubans have been sent back to Cuba.

The reason why Cubans are given amnesty is because the Cuban government is a communist dictatorship devoid of any human rights.

Cubans that are sent back can face execution by the Cuban government, so this is why they are allowed to stay.

The reason that they placed the restriction on actually reaching US soil is because many Cubans have and still do risk their lives in order to reach the US and the US government did not want them to risk their lives in this fashion.

By cafe41 — On Oct 04, 2010

Sneakers41-I understand that many of these refugees are desperate to start new lives in a less volitle environment; most countries can not take all of the refugees in without causing detrimental results for all citizens.

There has to be order in a country and a legal process because some refugees might have a criminal background and may not be desired in the new country.

There is an exception in the United States for Cubans that actually reach American soil. Cubans are automatically granted amnesty and political asylum if they actually reach US soil.

By sneakers41 — On Oct 04, 2010

Human rights NGOs stand for nongovernmental organizations that seek human rights protection globally.

A very powerful human rights NGO is AMNESTY International. They seek to educate those on refugee human rights. They are totally against the aspect that many refugees fleeing their homeland are not granted asylum in the country that they reached.

Some of these countries have policies in which refugees need to be sent back and have to go through the proper legal measures in order to be granted citizenship.

These nongovernmental organizations lobby for these people worldwide and feel that they should be granted amnesty because their political situation at home is devastating and they can no longer live there.

These mass exodus almost always make human rights news.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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