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Human Rights: A Basic Overview

Human rights are fundamental entitlements needed to safeguard every person’s dignity and promote the realization of each person’s full potential. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights describes human rights as:

  • Universal, the birthright of every human being;
  • Inalienable, they cannot be waived or taken away;
  • Interdependent and interrelated, every human right is closely related to and often dependent upon the realization of other human rights;
  • Entitlements of individuals and groups;
  • The responsibility of governments to protect; and
  • Internationally guaranteed and legally protected.

Until the end of World War II, how a government treated its citizens was largely seen as its own internal affair. With the creation of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN General Assembly in 1948, however, citizens’ rights became the legitimate concern of all states and their inhabitants.

The UN Charter commits each member state to take action to promote “universal respect for and observance of human rights.” Giving substance to this commitment is the international bill of rights. The bill of rights is comprised of the UDHR and two international treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Below are examples of the rights contained within each.



  • expression
  • health
  • information
  • food
  • association
  • employment
  • fair trial
  • adequate standard of living
  • freedom from torture
  • benefits of scientific progress

Example: The right to education must be accompanied by the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information. Similarly, the right to health is unattainable for many without the right to benefit from scientific progress.

Responsible parties

Governments have the primary responsibility, both within their own territory and in their activities overseas, to adhere to human rights standards and law.  Specifically, governments must:

  • Respect- not do anything that will violate a human right;
  • Protect- ensure that private actors do not violate human rights; and
  • Fulfill – do what is needed to ensure human rights are enjoyed by all.

Example: Governments must respect the right of students to learn about science by not removing funding for basic science education; they must protect students against restrictions on what is taught as part of science curricula, and not allow, for example, political, religious, or moral ideology to dictate curricula and science content; and they must dedicate adequate resources for the training of qualified science teachers.

The role of governments in a context of limited resources

Governments are required, individually and through international cooperation, to implement their human rights obligations to “the maximum of their available resources.” In certain circumstances, full realization of rights is not expected, but progressive realization is required. That is, governments must take documentable and visible steps toward meeting their obligations and may not take deliberately retrogressive steps.

What is more, human rights protection does not always require an outlay of financial resources. The duty to “respect” human rights, for example, is a responsibility to refrain from violating human rights, and often would not require expenditure of financial resources. In addition, the realization of many human rights requires a reassessment of funding priorities in a way that saves money, rather than requires more spending.

Example: To remove barriers to girls’ participation in science education or to international collaboration among scientists principally requires policy changes rather than financial resources. Ensuring universal access to basic water and sanitation contributes to the realization of the right to the benefits of scientific progress, and goes toward redressing systemic discrimination while reducing health-related costs.


Each human rights treaty has a corresponding treaty-monitoring body. Some of these bodies have the power to hear complaints from individuals against governments that have ratified the specific treaty. Decisions of the treaty-monitoring bodies, however, are not well enforced, relying heavily on the will of governments and the strength of civil society to demand compliance with human rights laws.

Other enforcement mechanisms exist at the regional and national levels and are often more effective than the international mechanisms at ensuring compliance with human rights:

  • Regional: Africa, the Americas, and Europe each have regional human rights mechanisms that include treaties and human rights courts. These courts can hear cases and issue judgments against governments that violate human rights.
  • National: When governments have incorporated human rights into their domestic laws, then national courts can hear cases involving alleged human rights violations.

Ultimately, the enforcement of human rights requires the engagement and commitment of a strong civil society to demand of governments that they comply with their human rights obligations.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) represents the world’s commitment to universal ideals of human dignity. It has a unique mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the principal human rights official of the United Nations. The High Commissioner heads OHCHR and spearheads the United Nations’ human rights efforts. The OHCHR is part of the United Nations Secretariat with its headquarters in Geneva.

Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the UN system made up of 47 States responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.  The Council was created by the UN General Assembly in 2006 with the main purpose of addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Frequently asked questions on a human rights-based approach to development cooperation. New York and Geneva, United Nations, 2006.