Human rights (natural rights) are rights which some hold to be "inalienable" and belonging to all humans, according to natural law. Such rights are believed, by proponents, to be necessary for freedom and the maintenance of a "reasonable" quality of life.
If a right is inalienable, that means it cannot be bestowed, granted, limited, bartered away, or sold away (e.g., one cannot sell oneself into slavery). The issue of which rights are inalienable and which are not (or whether any rights are inalienable rather than granted or bestowed) is an ancient and ongoing controversy. Rights may also be non-derogable (not limited in times of National Emergency) - these often include the right to life, the right to be prosecuted only according to the laws that are in existence at the time of the offence, the right to be free from slavery, and the right to be free from torture.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1948, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration introduced the notion in the public realm that rights are universal, inalienable,and inherent to the well being of an individual. Specifically, the Declaration limits the behaviour of the state, which now has duties to the citizen (rights-duty duality). The roots of this notion can be drawn as far back as the Ancients (the role of the individual in the state) but the idea of civil and political rights stems from liberal freedoms advocated by John Stuart Mill in "On Liberty". Economic, Social and Cultural Rights can be traced back to Hegel's "Elements of the Philosophy of Right".
The main content of the Declaration was later made into two legally binding Covenants: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (opened for signature 1966, entered into force March 23, 1976)  http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/a_ccpr.htm and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (opened for signature 1966, entered into force January 3, 1976)  http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/a_cescr.htm .
Other Human Rights Conventions of note include: Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime to Genocide (entry into force: 1951) http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/p_genoci.htm , The Convention against Torture (entry into force: 1984) http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/h_cat39.htm ,the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (entry into force: 1969)  http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/d_icerd.htm ,The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (entry into force: 1981) http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/frame.htm , UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (entry into force: 1989)  http://www.unicef.org/crc/crc.htm and the Rome Statute for International Criminal Court (entry into force: 2002).
Origins of rights
Human rights can be divided into two categories: negative human rights (rights to be free from) and positive (rights to). Negative human rights follow mainly from the Anglo-American legal tradition, and are rights which denote actions that a government should not take. These are codified in the United States Bill of Rights, the English Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and include freedoms of speech, religion and assembly.
Positive human rights follow mainly from the Rousseauian Continental European legal tradition, and rights that the state is obligated to protect and provide. Examples of such rights (not all are universally agreed upon) include: the rights to education, to a livelihood, and legal equality. Positive rights have been codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in many 20th century constitutions. The origin of modern positive rights in international law may be traced to the creation of the International Labour Organization as a Western response to the socialist ideology of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
A categorisation offered by Karel Vasak is the three generations of human rights: first-generation civil and political rights (right to life and political participation), second-generation economic, social and cultural rights (right to subsistence) and third-generation solidarity rights (right to peace, right to clean environment). The first- and second-generation rights are enshrined in international legal documents, while third-generation rights remain controversial. Some believe that this categorisation is misleading because rights in different "generations" are often interconnected; for example, basic education and basic subsistence may be considered prerequisite to full use of a right to political participation.
There are a number of theories of where rights come from. The theory espoused by the US Declaration of Independence and ingrained in Anglo-American legal thought is that rights arise from a divine Creator. This theory is considered antiquated in moral philosophy. Religious societies tend to try to justify human rights through religious arguments. For example, liberal movements within Islam have tried to use the story of Adam in the Qur'an to support human rights in a Muslim context.
Human Rights Controversies
There are a number of controversies regarding human rights including:
- Are human rights political, moral or legal entities (or all three at the same time)?
- Is there or should there be a hierarchy of human rights?
- Do human rights impede on state sovereignty? What if the state itself has ratified international conventions?
- Should human rights be used as a context for economic or military intervention? (Often leads to a worsening of the human rights situation in the target country)
- Questions of Cultural Relativism-- e.g. "Political participation is not a part of African culture. Who are you to say that we should have political participation?" These arguments can also be made on religious basis "In our religion marriages have always been arranged, why should we not continue this practise?" The increasing number of third-world states parties to international human rights treaties has made these arguments weaker but not disappear altogether.
- Who should hold the moral duty to uphold rights? For civil and political rights, the answer is the state but it is not quite so clear who should be responsible for promoting economic, social and cultural rights (do we have a global duty). This debate mirrors debates between communitarianism and cosmopolitanism.
One is what rights are included as fundamental human rights, or even if there is such a thing. Another controversy is how best to enforce human rights and in particular the relationship between human rights and national sovereignty. One point of view is that human rights are universal and therefore it is proper for any national to attempt to enforce human rights through international courts or domestic law. The opposing view is that having human rights override national sovereignty is a form of imperialism in which powerful countries dictate which rights they consider most important against less powerful countries. Canada attempts to resolve this tension by allowing legislative primacy on a temporary and renewable basis notwithstanding that the law infringes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The most powerful human rights organisation is the European Court of Human Rights, which is the only international court with jurisdiction to deal with cases brought by individuals (not states).
Hate crimes laws
With the advent of the concept of human rights, various countries and American states have attempted to enact laws against what are called hate crimes. A hate crime is defined as a crime committed with direct influence by the minority status of the victim. A hate crime law would bring greater penalty to the perpetrator based on the hateful intent.
Conservatives in the United States often oppose hate crime laws, on the grounds that punishing crimes based on perceived or unprovable intentions or emotions is unjust. They feel that substantively similar crimes should be punished equally, rather than based on a constructed notion of hate. In other words they consider the magnitude of a crime equal regardless of motivations such as greed, hate, fear, etc.
Liberals often support hate crime laws, stating that by enacting them individuals would face greater discouragement from committing hate crimes. They also point out that all laws are subjective, and that if society can determine that one crime deserves more punishment than another (ie: murder vs. involuntary manslaughter), then it can also determine what motivations deserve more stringent punishments.
- Country-specific articles:
- International human rights instruments
- Human rights abuse
- Three generations of human rights
- Better World Links on Human Rights http://www.betterworldlinks.org/menschenrechte.htm
- University of Leicester, UK, list of sources and links. http://www.le.ac.uk/library/hmb11/law/humanr.html
- Photojournalist's aproach to human rights in Sudan http://www.detroitfocus.org/Issues/0410/CryForCompassion/index.html
- A Muslim approach to human rights http://www.liberalislam.net/adam.html from LiberalIslam.net
Human rights organizations
- Better World Links on Human Rights Organizations http://www.betterworldlinks.org/book20b.htm
- Amnesty International: http://www.amnesty.org
- Freedom House: http://www.freedomhouse.org
- International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights: http://www.ihf-hr.org
- International Volunteer Public Organization MEMORIAL: http://www.memo.ru/eng/
- The Carter Center: http://www.cartercenter.org
- Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org
- UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: http://www.ohchr.org
- University of Minnesota Human Rights Library : http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/
- International Freedom of Expression eXchange: http://www.ifex.org
- Human Rights Campaign: http://www.hrc.org
- Montagnard Foundation: http://www.montagnard-foundation.org/homepage.html
- Olympic Watch: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008 http://www.olympicwatch.org/