human rights

Human rights refer to fundamental rights to which all human beings are equally entitled. Unlike rights bestowed by governments, human rights are both inalienable and universal, and exist regardless of whether a state chooses to recognize them or not. In principle, human rights are applicable to every person, regardless of their age, sex, or nationality. 

International human rights law grew out of a response to the horrors of war, in particular World War II, although the Geneva Conventions had begun earlier. The formation of the United Nations gave human rights international legitimacy, particularly because many nations signed the United Nations Charter, which specifically mentions human rights (See: Preamble, and  Chapter I).

Although there is no consensus on what rights are considered human rights, most countries recognize the principles set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Proclaimed by the U.N.’s General Assembly in 1948, the Declaration of Human Rights is an aspirational document, and is non-binding on its signatories. It includes negative rights (whereby national governments may not engage in certain activities, such as torture) and positive rights (calling on nations to provide certain basic services, such as free education). 

The Declaration of Human Rights has served as inspiration for many subsequent treaties. In the years since the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration, the U.N. has passed many subsequent binding agreements and resolutions. Additionally, it has set up tribunals to charge those suspected of egregious violations of human rights, the most notable example being the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

Outside of the U.N., a number of multilateral treaties on human rights have been signed. The American Convention on Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights represent some of the most significant human rights treaties to date. 

In addition to international treaties, many nations recognize human rights in their institutions, laws, and constitutions. The United States is one such nation. The United States Declaration of Independence was among the earliest government documents to recognize the concept of universal human rights, stating “that all men are created equal… endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights”. While the government of the United States has at times fallen short of this ideal, later documents, such as the Bill of Rights, the 13th Amendment, and Civil Rights Acts would go on to give the concept universal human rights greater legal recognition in the United States.

Selected International Human Rights Instruments

Selected International Venues for Enforcing Human Rights Law

Selected International/ National Organizations that Monitor and Seek to Enforce International Human Rights Law

Key Internet Sources

Other Topics

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]