What Are Human Rights?

The modern human rights era can be traced to struggles to end slavery, genocide, discrimination, and government oppression. After World War I, many scholars, activists, and some national leaders called for a declaration and accompanying international system—the League of Nations—to protect the most basic fundamental rights and human freedoms. Atrocities during World War II made clear that previous efforts to secure individual rights and curtail the power of governments to violate these rights were inadequate. The time was ripe for adoption of a globally recognized instrument that enshrined these values. Thus was born the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as part of the emergence of the United Nations (UN)


The UDHR was the first international document that spelled out the “basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy.” The UN General Assembly ratified the declaration unanimously on December 10, 1948. The vote to adopt the UDHR was considered a triumph as it unified diverse nations and conflicting political regimes.


The UDHR was not legally binding, though it carried great moral weight. In order to give the human rights listed in the UDHR the force of law, the United Nations drafted two covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The division of rights between these two treaties is artificial, a reflection of the global ideological divide during the Cold War.


Though politics prevented the creation of a unified treaty, the two covenants are interrelated, and the rights contained in one covenant are necessary to the fulfillment of the rights contained in the other. Together, the UDHR, ICCPR, and ICESCR are known as the International Bill of Human Rights. They contain a comprehensive list of human rights that governments must respect and promote, including:

  1. Right to life;

  2. Equality;

  3. Security of person;

  4. Freedom from slavery;

  5. Freedom from arbitrary arrest/detention;

  6. Freedom of movement and residence;

  7. Due process of law;

  8. Freedom of opinion and expression;

  9. Freedom of association and assembly;

  10. Right to safe and healthy working conditions;

  11. Right to form trade unions and to strike;

  12. Right to adequate food, clothing, and housing;

  13. Right to education; and

  14. Right to health.


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