What are human rights?

9 April 2015, 11:49 UTC | New Zealand

Human rights are the fundamental rights and freedoms that belong to every single one of us. No one can take these rights and freedoms away from us.

The traumatic events of World War Two highlighted that these rights are not always respected. So in 1948, under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, representatives from the 50 member states of the United Nations came together to devise a list of all the rights that everybody across the world should enjoy.

This became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - thirty rights and freedoms that belong to all of us and continue to form the basis for all international human rights law. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The international community agreed that the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be recognised as: 

  • Universal – they belong to all of us, to everybody in the world
  • Inalienable – they cannot be taken away from us
  • Indivisible and interdependent – governments should not be able to pick and choose which are respected

Article One states that we are all born free. We all have our own thoughts and ideas and we should all be treated the same way. 

The rights included in the following 29 articles include the right to seek asylum, the right to be free from torture, the right to free speech and the right to education. 

The UDHR is the foundation of our work and is the map against which we can hold authorities to account when rights are abused.

Why should you care about human rights? 

Human rights are not just about the law. They are also about the decisions we make and situations we experience on a daily basis.

If we feel annoyed with something a politician does, many of us would not think twice about discussing it with our friends online or at the pub. But when you do, you are exercising a human right - your right to free speech. 

That’s the thing about human rights. When they are being respected they go almost unnoticed. Most children in New Zealand don’t wake up on a school day celebrating their ability to exercise their right to education. But children who are denied the right to go to school in their own countries would very likely appreciate it more. 

We often take our human rights for granted, because they are based on principles that are intuitive - dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy. More often than not, it is only when our rights are being violated that we stand up and take notice.

Unfortunately human rights abuse is rife – thousands of people across the world are denied a fair trial, tortured and imprisoned because of what they think or believe. Civilians are targeted at times of war. Children are forced to fight. Rape is used as a weapon. 

That is why it is important that we do not take human rights for granted. And why it is important that they are enshrined in international law, so that we can hold states and people to account when they commit atrocities. 

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