What are human rights?

I chose to introduce this blog, because I wanted to try and engage people who may not have an interest in human rights. The fundamental block to engagement I felt was the complexity of a lot of human rights debates. When people choose to write or report on human rights, it often involves the use of jargon and knowledge of declarations, law and rights that many don’t have easy access to. Therefore, I chose to try and write in a clear and succinct manner, trying to resist using such jargon – making it as easy as possible for people to follow. However, one thing I didn’t immediately consider was the complexity of the term ‘human rights’ itself. If you ask yourself ‘what exactly are human rights?’ what would be your answer? If your answer is anything like mine, it will start with something like “that’s a tough one…” or “I’m not entirely sure”, so this article will try and tackle that question, to help try and make this topic as easy to understand as possible and to try and encourage you to ask what you think human rights are. I will do this by first discussing where the idea of human rights seemingly began, later discussing what all this progression means and where it has left us…

Where did human rights come from in the UK?

The origins of human rights do not come from one specific date or occurrence, instead being a dynamic, progressive idea. In terms of law, events such as the introduction of the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689)  certainly laid foundations for us to build such rights. However, this time predominantly centred around obligations rather than rights. During the early modern period (1500-1800 AD) and the beginning of the late modern period (1800 AD -), there was incredible inequality. In fact rights derived almost solely from being white, male and rich in the Western world, something that was also quickly forced upon others through colonialism predominantly. The monarchy maintained incredible power in law, to punish whoever they pleased and often resulted in the rule of law being ignored. Rights for the lower classes and minorities were merely a dream.

A little timeline showing important steps towards achieving human rights today via: fanpop.com

A little timeline showing important steps towards achieving human rights today via: fanpop.com

Such inequality remained and seemed inevitable until two fundamental changes occurred leading to people becoming less tolerant of inequalities (these are the 2 changes I feel had the greatest effect on the changing attitude towards rights):

  1. The popularity of natural law – ‘Natural law’ provided a number of moral principles by which many suggested humans should live by. Such moral principles were said to derive from God and his teachings. Regardless of one’s opinion regarding religion, the basic lessons it teaches are of equality and human kindness towards others. Its increasing popularity in many people’s thinking, led to many showing compassion towards others more readily than before, regardless of individual characteristics.
  2. The increase in support of action against inequality – More and more questions started to be asked about why such inequalities occurred so freely in our society and why these had to be accepted. Protests against things such as (most famously) the slave trade in the 1800’s and women not being allowed to vote in the early 20th century, produced progression towards equality that had not been seen on such a scale before. Such action and bravery most certainly led to more and more people standing up to the idea that inequality should just be accepted.

This activism against the norm of the time created enormous change in the 20th century in terms of allowing people rights. As well as this, the introduction of things such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (aka ECHR) (incorporated in the UK through the Human Rights Act) have started a human rights movement. Suddenly, this idea that not only some should benefit from rights has gained enormous support, as politics has been overrun with calls for human rights to play a central part in our policy-making. Suddenly the idea of superiority of some in affording people rights has been severely weakened and we live in a time where equality and human rights are a central consideration in our affairs.

But, what exactly are these human rights so many want implemented now?

The simple answer is, there is no concrete definition of human rights. There is no exact scope for what can and can’t be a human right. No law identifies an exhaustive list of all human rights. Human rights are an ideal, rather than an achievable end goal. In fact, the only certain definition I can offer is that theoretically, human rights are supposed to apply to all human beings universally (the principle of universality). They are equal and universal rights that should not be applied in a discriminatory manner.

Understandably, this may seem like a disappointing answer, considering this article centres around what human rights actually are. However, this is why human rights are such a fantastic thing in my opinion. As their universality is the only rule one needs to consider when looking to define human rights, they offer a fantastic opportunity for everyone to come to their own conclusions. Human rights allow you to define what exactly they are, or what you think they should be. For example, you may think, ‘does the Human Rights Act not limit what we can define as human rights in the UK?’. My answer to this would be at the moment, no. The reason for this, is down to the current ability of courts (both national and European) to consider our opinions on what should constitute a right, by hearing our cases. For example, the development and expansion of our right to privacy since the Act’s introduction in 2000 has been incredible. It has allowed people to question the (at the time) current definition of a right in the UK/Europe, based on experiences they may have encountered, asking why it shouldn’t be defined in a different way. The courts consideration of such questions have allowed us to extend our use of the right to privacy far beyond what was possible even 5 years ago (a fantastic and simple explanation of the right to privacy is available on the UK Human Rights Blog).

Since human rights became part of our legal framework, a concrete definition of what a specific right means, can never be said to have truly existed. Look at freedom of speech/expression for example. One interpretation of that right may be that we have the ability to say whatever we like, without facing persecution for it. However, another interpretation may be that we are free to speak our mind, as long as we do not encroach on others rights (eg, one may express the opinion that a certain race or nationality is inferior to another, which can potentially disrupt our prohibition of discrimination – should they be allowed to express such an opinion as a right, if it has such effects?) This is merely one example of the complexity/freedom in defining human rights.

So, simply, my answer to ‘what are human rights?’ would be this. Human rights are relatively undefined, with only legal and political definitions creating some sort of restriction. They offer every person in the world the opportunity to think about what they would like our rights to be. This idea of human rights has developed incredibly over the past 100 years and I hope will continue to grow for at least 100 more. But, when it comes down to actually discussing what human rights were, what they are now and what they will be, no one answer can be correct. Human rights are subjective and allow every one of you the ability to alter the law’s definition. Its flexibility is incredible and not something that should put you off learning more about human rights. It is a subject that allows everyone to have a valid opinion. I absolutely love that and I hope each and every one of you can learn to love that too.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this slightly different article by THWBlog! If you haven’t done so already, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for access to more articles and news updates. Also, we’d love for you to share, like and comment on the article, so more people can engage with not only the blog itself, but also human rights as a whole. Thanks!


3 thoughts on “What are human rights?

  1. Pingback: Christmas Rights – Article 14 Prohibition of Discrimination | The Human Writes Blog

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