Every person has dignity and value. One of the ways that we recognise the
fundamental worth of every person is by acknowledging and respecting their human
Human rights are a set of principles concerned with equality and fairness. They
recognise our freedom to make choices about our lives and to develop our
potential as human beings. They are about living a life free from fear,
harassment or discrimination.
Human rights can broadly be defined as a number of basic rights that people from
around the world have agreed are essential. These include the right to life, the
right to a fair trial, freedom from torture and other cruel and inhuman
treatment, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the rights to health,
education and an adequate standard of living.
These human rights are the same for all people everywhere – men and women, young
and old, rich and poor, regardless of our background, where we live, what we
think or what we believe. This is what makes human rights 'universal'.
Who has a responsibility to protect human rights?
Human rights connect us to each other through a shared set of rights and
A person's ability to enjoy their human rights depends on other people
respecting those rights. This means that human rights involve responsibility and
duties towards other people and the community.
Individuals have a responsibility to ensure that they exercise their rights with
consideration for the rights of others. For example, when someone uses their
right to freedom of speech, they should do so without interfering with someone
else's right to privacy.
Governments have a particular responsibility to ensure that people are able to
enjoy their rights. They are required to establish and maintain laws and
services that enable people to enjoy a life in which their rights are respected
For example, the right to education says that everyone is entitled to a good
education. This means that governments have an obligation to provide good
quality education facilities and services to their people.
Whether or not governments actually do this, it is generally accepted that this
is the government's responsibility and people can call them to account if they
fail to respect or protect their basic human rights.
What do human rights cover?
Human rights cover virtually every area of human activity.
They include civil and political rights, which refer to a person's rights to
take part in the civil and political life of their community without
discrimination or oppression. These include rights and freedoms such as the
right to vote, the right to privacy, freedom of speech and freedom from torture.
The right to vote and take part in choosing a government is a civil and
They also include economic, social and cultural rights, which relate to a
person's rights to prosper and grow and to take part in social and cultural
activities. This group includes rights such as the right to health, the right to
education and the right to work.
The right to education is an example of an economic, social and cultural right.
One of the main differences between these two groups of rights is that, in the
case of civil and political rights, governments must make sure that they, or any
other group, are not denying people access to their rights, whereas in relation
to economic, social and cultural rights, governments must take active steps to
ensure rights are being fulfilled.
As well as belonging to every individual, there are some rights that also belong
to groups of people. This is often in recognition of the fact that these groups
have been disadvantaged and marginalised throughout history and consequently
need greater protection of their rights. These rights are called collective
rights. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples possess
collective rights to their ancestral lands, which are known as native title
Rights that can only apply to individuals, for example the right to a fair
trial, are called individual rights.
Where do human rights come from?
The origins of human rights
Human rights are not a recent invention.
Throughout history, concepts of ethical behaviour, justice and human dignity
have been important in the development of human societies. These ideas can be
traced back to the ancient civilisations of Babylon, China and India. They
contributed to the laws of Greek and Roman society and are central to Buddhist,
Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish teachings.
Concepts of ethics, justice and dignity were also important in societies which
have not left written records, but consist of oral histories such as those of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia and other indigenous
Ideas about justice were prominent in the thinking of philosophers in the Middle
Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. An important strand in this
thinking was that there was a 'natural law' that stood above the law of rulers.
This meant that individuals had certain rights simply because they were human
In 1215, the English barons forced the King of England to sign Magna Carta
(which is Latin for 'the Great Charter'). Magna Carta was the first document to
place limits on the absolute power of the king and make him accountable to his
subjects. It also laid out some basic rights for the protection of citizens,
such as the right to a trial.
Significant development in thinking about human rights took place in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during a time of revolution and emerging
The American Declaration of Independence (1776) was based on the understanding
that certain rights, such as 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness', were
fundamental to all people. Similarly, the French Declaration of the Rights of
Man and the Citizen (1789) challenged the authority of the aristocracy and
recognised the 'liberty, equality and fraternity' of individuals. These values
were also echoed in the United States' Bill of Rights (1791), which recognised
freedom of speech, religion and the press, as well as the right to 'peaceable'
assembly, private property and a fair trial.
The English barons forcing the tyranical King John to sign Magna Carta in 1215
The development of modern human rights
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw continuing advances in social
progress, for example, in the abolition of slavery, the widespread provision of
education and the extension of political rights. Despite these advances,
international activity on human rights remained weak. The general attitude was
that nations could do what they liked within their borders and that other
countries and the broader international community had no basis for intervening
or even raising concerns when rights were violated.
This is expressed in the term 'state sovereignty', which refers to the idea that
whoever has the political authority within a country has the power to rule and
pass laws over that territory. Importantly, countries agree to mutually
recognise this sovereignty. In doing so, they agree to refrain from interfering
in the internal or external affairs of other sovereign states.
However, the atrocities and human rights violations that occurred during World
War II galvanised worldwide opinion and made human rights a universal concern.
Word War II onwards
During World War II millions of soldiers and civilians were killed or maimed.
The Nazi regime in Germany created concentration camps for certain groups -
including Jews, communists, homosexuals and political opponents. Some of these
people were used as slave labour, others were exterminated in mass executions.
The Japanese occupation of China and other Asian countries was marked by
frequent and large-scale brutality toward local populations. Japanese forces
took thousands of prisoners of war who were used as slave labour, with no
medical treatment and inadequate food.
A group of prisoners at a concentration camp during WWII in Ebensee, Austria
The promotion and protection of human rights became a fundamental objective of
the Allied powers. In 1941, U.S. President Roosevelt proclaimed the 'Four
Freedoms' that people everywhere in the world ought to enjoy - freedom of speech
and belief, and freedom from want and fear.
The war ended in 1945, but only after the destruction of millions of lives,
including through the first and only use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and
Nagasaki. Many countries were devastated by the war, and millions of people died
or became homeless refugees.
This new organisation was the United Nations, known as the UN, which came into
existence in 1945.As the war drew to a close, the victorious powers decided to
establish a world organisation that would prevent further conflict and help
build a better world.
The UN was created to fulfil four key aims:
- to ensure peace and security
- to promote economic development
- to promote the development of international law
- to ensure the observance of human rights.
In the UN Charter – the UN's founding document – the countries of the United
Nations stated that they were determined:
'… to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of
the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and
small … and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger
The UN's strong emphasis on human rights made it different from previous
international organisations. UN member countries believed that the protection of
human rights would help ensure freedom, justice and peace for all in the
Why are human rights important?
Values of tolerance, equality and respect can help reduce friction within
society. Putting human rights ideas into practice can helps us create the kind
of society we want to live in.
In recent decades, there has been a tremendous growth in how we think about and
apply human rights ideas. This has had many positive results - knowledge about
human rights can empower individuals and offer solutions for specific problems.
Human rights are an important part of how people interact with others at all
levels in society - in the family, the community, schools, the workplace, in
politics and in international relations. It is vital therefore that people
everywhere should strive to understand what human rights are. When people better
understand human rights, it is easier for them to promote justice and the
well-being of society.
Can my human rights be taken away from me?
A person's human rights cannot be taken away. In its final Article, the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that no State, group or person
'[has] any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the
destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein'.
This doesn't mean that abuses and violations of human rights don't occur. On
television and in newspapers every day we hear tragic stories of murder,
violence, racism, hunger, unemployment, poverty, abuse, homelessness and
However, the Universal Declaration and other human rights treaties are more than
just noble aspirations. They are essential legal principles. To meet their
international human rights obligations, many nations have incorporated these
principles into their own laws. This provides an opportunity for individuals to
have a complaint settled by a court in their own country.
Individuals from some countries may also be able to take a complaint of human
rights violations to a United Nations committee of experts, which would then
give its opinion.
In addition, education about human rights is just as important as having laws to
protect people. Long term progress can really only be made when people are aware
of what human rights are and what standards exist.