Q and A

What are human rights ?

Human rights are those rights that are necessary in order for us to live as human beings. Human rights give us dignity and equality. Human rights ensure that we all have adequate access to basic needs such as food and shelter. Human rights protect us from violence and abuse and work against ignorance and hatred. Human rights are inherent in all human beings and they should never be denied. Human rights are universal. They transcend borders, cultures, political ideologies, and religious beliefs. No matter where you live in the world, who your parents are, or what kind of government you have, human rights are your rights. Human rights allow us to fully develop our human abilities. They protect our right to participate in society, to work and provide for ourselves, to practice our culture and speak our language, to live in peace, and to be free from harm. Most importantly, human rights are about respecting one another. They are about fulfilling our responsibility to ensure that no one’s human rights are violated. For example, it is your right to be free from discrimination and it is your duty to not discriminate against others. When any person is denied human rights we are all affected. Recognizing that human rights are only as strong as our willingness to treat one another as equals is the first step in achieving "freedom, justice and peace in the world".

Universal and inalienable

The principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. This principle, as first emphasized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, has been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, for example, noted that it is the duty of States to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems. All States have ratified at least one, and 80% of States have ratified four or more, of the core human rights treaties, reflecting consent of States which creates legal obligations for them and giving concrete expression to universality. Some fundamental human rights norms enjoy universal protection by customary international law across all boundaries and civilizations. Human rights are inalienable. They should not be taken away, except in specific situations and according to due process. For example, the right to liberty may be restricted if a person is found guilty of a crime by a court of law.

Interdependent and indivisible

All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education , or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination, are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others.

Equal and non-discriminatory

Non-discrimination is a cross-cutting principle in international human rights law. The principle is present in all the major human rights treaties and provides the central theme of some of international human rights conventions such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The principle applies to everyone in relation to all human rights and freedoms and it prohibits discrimination on the basis of a list of non-exhaustive categories such as sex, race, colour and so on. The principle of non-discrimination is complemented by the principle of equality, as stated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Both Rights and Obligations

Human rights entail both rights and obligations. States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights. The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the individual level, while we are entitled our human rights, we should also respect the human rights of others.

Why is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights important ?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a symbol of freedom, equality, and justice in the world. It was the first international agreement aimed solely at protecting and promoting human rights. Nations with diverse political, religious and cultural backgrounds joined together to make a statement against injustice and inequality. They created a standard of achievement that all nations thereafter would be morally obligated to respect. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a ground-breaking document that paved the way for the future of international justice and human rights. Many international human rights agreements have emerged since 1948. Thousands of non-governmental human rights organizations have been established in the past 50 years. These organizations have often used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a way to measure their governments’ human rights performance. It is an instrument used to prompt democratic reform and to demand adherence to international human rights laws. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also important to you. It is the foundation of your freedom, your rights, and your responsibilities. Student and teacher demonstrations, non-governmental organizations, community groups and individuals have struggled to ensure that our rights as human beings are protected. We all have an obligation to do the same. Just as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be used to measure a government’s performance, it can also be used to measure our own performance in respecting and promoting human rights. How do you measure up? Do you treat others equally? Do you respect diversity? Are you working against human rights violations? These are important questions you must ask yourself. If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to continue to be a strong influence in our lives, we must act on it!

Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights upheld universally ?

Every human being should be able to read a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and say, "Yes, my human rights are respected". Similarly, everyone should be able to say, "Yes, I respect the rights of others". Unfortunately, fifty years after the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this is still not the case. In order for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to meet its full purpose, every person must fulfill his/her responsibility to respect human rights. At an international level, many countries have taken steps to ensure that human rights are a priority in their states. By signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a country commits itself to protecting the rights of its citizens and respecting the rights of all human beings. Even countries that have not signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are morally obligated to abide by its principles. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become so entrenched in international law that to disregard the importance of human rights is considered unacceptable by international standards. Many individuals and many governments, however, still fail to uphold human rights. Despite diplomatic pressure, multilateral agreements, and national laws, human rights continue to be violated, and not just in wars or by corrupt governments in far away places. Human rights violations are occurring in homes, in schools, and in communities across Canada. In order for these violations to end and human rights to be protected, it is up to us to take action. Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the first United Nations Human Rights Commission, once said that human rights begin "in small places, close to home". What is your role in protecting human rights in your school? How can you help others in your community? What more can Canada do about human rights violations here and abroad? These are difficult questions but they must be addressed. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can become a universally respected document if we work together.

What is the International Bill of Human Rights ?

There are three key documents that make up the International Bill of Human Rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). Whereas the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a statement of principles, the two convenants are legally binding agreements. This means that if countries have signed and ratified the covenants, they agree to uphold the rights and freedoms defined by the covenants in their own states. Although the covenants reflect principles similar to those of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they also include additional rights. The focus of each covenant is different. They were both written at the height of the Cold War when communist and liberal-democratic countries disagreed about which rights were more important to their citizens. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights emphasizes the rights of the worker to "just and favourable conditions" and to an "adequate standard of living". The right to food, shelter, health care, and education are included as major components. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights addresses those rights we usually associate with democracy, such as freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and the right to vote. The first article of both covenants is the right to self-determination. This right was not included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to self-determination gives nations the freedom to establish their own governments, to create their own laws, and to practice their own culture without interference. This right forms the foundation for all other rights in each covenant. In the same way, the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights", is the foundation of all other rights in the declaration. Together, these three documents form the basis of human rights as we have come to know them today.

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Icelandic Human Rights Centre

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