The Definition of Human Rights

Human Rights Then and Now

Cambodia's Opposition Supporters Hold Three-Day Mass Protests
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The term "human rights" refers to rights that are considered universal to humanity regardless of citizenship, residency status, ethnicity, gender or other considerations. The phrase first became widely used due to the abolitionist movement, which drew on the common humanity of slaves and free persons. As William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the first issue of The Liberator, "In defending the great cause of human rights, I wish to derive the assistance of all religions and of all parties."

The Idea Behind Human Rights 

The idea behind human rights is much older, and it's much harder to trace. Rights declarations such as the Magna Carta have historically taken the form of a benevolent monarch granting rights to his or her subjects. This idea progressed in a Western cultural context toward the idea that God is the ultimate monarch and God grants rights that all earthly leaders should respect. This was the philosophical basis of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which begins:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Far from self-evident, this was a fairly radical idea at the time. But the alternative was to accept that God works through earthly leaders, a view that seemed increasingly naive as literacy rates increased and knowledge of corrupt rulers grew.

The enlightened view of God as a cosmic sovereign who grants the same basic rights to everyone with no need for earthly intermediaries still anchored human rights to the idea of power — but at least it didn't place the power in the hands of earthly rulers.

Human Rights Today 

Human rights are more commonly viewed today as basic to our identities as human beings.

They're no longer typically framed in monarchial or theological terms, and they're mutually agreed upon on a more flexible basis. They're not dictated by a permanent authority. This allows for a great deal of disagreement regarding what human rights are, and whether basic quality-of-life concerns such as housing and health care should be considered part of the human rights framework.

Human Rights vs. Civil Liberties 

Differences between human rights and civil liberties are not always particularly clear. I had the opportunity to meet with several visiting Indonesian women's rights activists in 2010 who asked me why the U.S. does not use the terminology of human rights to address domestic concerns. One might speak of civil rights or civil liberties when discussing an issue like free speech or the rights of the homeless, but it's rare for the U.S. policy debate to incorporate the terminology of human rights when discussing things that happen within the boundaries of this country.

It's my feeling that this comes from the U.S. tradition of rugged individualism — conceding that the U.S. can have a human rights problem implies that there are entities outside the U.S. to which our country is accountable.

This is an idea that our political and cultural leaders tend to resist, although it's likely to change over time due to the long-term effects of globalization. But in the short term, applying the principles of human rights to U.S. controversies may provoke more fundamental arguments about the relevance of human rights principles to the U.S. 

There are nine fundamental human rights treaties to which all signatories - including the United States - have agreed to hold themselves accountable under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. In practice, there is no fully-binding enforcement mechanism for these treaties. They're aspirational, much as the Bill of Rights was prior to the adoption of the incorporation doctrine. And, much like the Bill of Rights, they may gain power over time.

Also known as: The phrase "fundamental rights" is sometimes used interchangeably with "human rights," but it can also refer specifically to civil liberties.