What Are Human Rights?

Too often, the phrase “human rights” gets tossed around like a verbal football, as if everyone automatically knows what human rights mean and can instinctively play the game without any practice. In reality, understanding human rights takes a lot more effort than simply referring to countries like China, Cuba, or Iran and their seemingly obvious human rights violations. Human rights include a wide variety of concepts and cover many areas of the human condition. While no single definition could possibly cover the entire gamut of what human rights involve, the idea of human rights can generally be defined as those rights, which are inherent in our nature and without which we cannot
live as human beings. Human rights and fundamental freedoms allow us to fully develop and use our human qualities, our intelligence, our talents and our conscience and to satisfy our spiritual and other needs. They are based
on mankind’s increasing demand for a life in which the inherent dignity and worth of each human being will receive respect and protection. (UnitedNations, 1987)
People from different backgrounds readily endorse the concept of human rights, which refer to those rights that every human being possesses and is entitled to enjoy simply by virtue of being human (Ife, 2001). Moving from a general definition of human rights to more specific explanations requires a look at various human rights documents. The importance of these documents is that individuals, groups and governments from all over the world
have invested considerable time and thought in drafting the documents. Voices from different corners of the world air within these instruments, which generally take the form of a written declaration or covenant sponsored by the United Nations.
Criticism that human rights are western concepts and do not reflect cultures of non-western societies may have some validity. But most of the human rights specified in the various declarations and covenants issued by the United Nations reflect world-wide input.
The starting point in understanding human rights lies within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which all members of the United Nations agree to support. While members of the United Nations agree to follow the Universal
Declaration, the reality is that many countries pay only lip service to this important document. Yet, at a minimum, approval of the declaration by members of the United Nations indicates a commitment to satisfying the specified rights.