human rights

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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

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • United Nations Charter
  • Proclamation of Tehran
  • Geneva Conventions
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
  • ILO Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labor
  • Convention on the Political Rights of Women
  • Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment
  • American Convention on Human Rights (introduction)
  • European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

Selected International Venues for Enforcing Human Rights Law

  • International Court of Justice (Hears Claims of Human Rights Violations under the UN Charter)
  • United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (UN Commission)
  • Human Rights Committee (Treaty Monitoring Body)
  • Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (Treaty Monitoring Body)
  • European Court of Human Rights (Hears Claims of Human Rights Violations under the The European Convention on Human Rights of 1950)
  • European Court of Justice (High Court of the European Union)

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

  • International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
  • Amnesty International
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Human Rights First
  • Physicians for Human Rights
  • InterAction
  • International Justice Mission

Key Internet Sources

  • The International Center for the Legal Protection of Human Rights
  • American Society for International Law Guide to Human Rights
  • United Nations Human Rights Page
  • University of Minnesota Human Rights Library
  • Council of Europe Directorate General of Human Rights
  • U.S. State Department Bureau on Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
  • European Court of Human Rights Case Law Database
  • Institute for the Study of Human Rights (Columbia University)
  • Harvard Human Rights Journal (Harvard Law School)
  • Human Rights Law Review (Columbia University)
  • The Buffalo Human Rights Center (University at Buffalo Law School)
  • List of International Human Rights Instruments of the United Nations
  • Treaty Monitoring Bodies of the United Nations

Other Topics

  • International law
  • Terrorism
  • LII Backgrounder on Terrorism

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