What are human rights?

Explaining what human rights protect, where they are codified and how they relate to new challenges.

Published 5 May 2023 8 minute READ

What are human rights?

Human rights are fundamental freedoms that every person enjoys, and that governments are obliged to respect, protect and fulfil in accordance with international law.

Human rights are universal, embodying a common understanding of freedom, dignity and equality.

While the values captured can be found in many traditions and philosophies, human rights emerged as an international concept following the Second World War and were set out for the first time in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.

The Declaration was not simply an exercise in idealism. Following the devastation of the war, the protection of human rights was understood as essential to preventing future atrocities and ensuring a lasting peace.

Why are human rights important?

Human rights safeguard autonomy and freedom, along with access to food, employment, healthcare and other material conditions that allow for a life with dignity. They protect against oppressive and discriminatory behaviour by governments and drive progress towards fairer, thriving societies.

As legal rights, they provide a route for accountability and for change through national courts and international mechanisms. They also facilitate collective action, enabling communities to build narratives that are based on common values and on duties accepted by states.

The world is at a critical moment for human rights. As geopolitical competition intensifies, China continues to push back on human rights norms, promoting an approach that is heavily state-centric and resistant to oversight or accountability. It points to its economic record as evidence that civil and political freedoms are not necessary for economic success.

China’s stance is emboldening others with autocratic tendencies. This stance also resonates with those frustrated by the Global North’s selective approach to human rights, which has historically downplayed socio-economic rights and been inconsistent in calling out abuses. 

The Global North’s credibility has also been compromised in recent years, partly because of controversies around the US-led ‘war on terror’ and as a result of ambivalent – or sometimes hostile – comments from certain leaders about human rights norms and bodies.

This challenging geopolitical environment is complicated by the complexity and urgency of contemporary issues, including emerging technology, the climate crisis and deepening inequality, which also profoundly impact human rights. Yet, long-established human rights standards agreed by states are often missing from policy conversations on these areas.

What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the UDHR. Beyond its significant moral and political force, many of its provisions are now regarded as part of customary international law.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Declaration was also instrumental in the development of international human rights law through the adoption of numerous treaties.

These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which, together with the UDHR, are known as the International Bill of Human Rights.

The rights covered in the International Bill of Rights include the right to life, the prohibition on torture, freedom of expression, the right to vote, the right to employment and the right to health.

Human rights treaties allow for a careful balancing between competing rights and between human rights and other societal interests. They also set up global bodies and mechanisms tasked with promoting and monitoring respect for human rights. 

What are human rights in the UK?

The concept of human rights has a long history in the UK. Perhaps the most famous example is that of the Magna Carta of 1215, which established that subjects of the crown had legal rights.

Today, everyone in the UK enjoys the rights guaranteed by international human rights treaties that the UK is a party to, including the ICCPR, the ICESCR and the European Convention on Human Rights. The rights contained in the European Convention have been translated into UK law through the 1998 Human Rights Act.

The Act requires all public authorities to respect and protect the rights contained within it. It also requires UK courts to interpret legislation, where possible, in a way which is compatible with the European Convention and allows human rights complaints to be raised in UK courts.

What is the European Convention on Human Rights? 

The European Convention on Human Rights is one of a number of regional human rights treaties that complement human rights treaties adopted at the global level. Other regional agreements include the American Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The European Convention is an instrument of the Council of Europe, an organization unrelated to the EU, and covers more than 40 countries including Azerbaijan, France, Croatia, Georgia, Iceland, Norway, Turkey, the UK and Ukraine.

The Convention – which this year marks 70 years since it entered into force – was adopted in 1950,  inspired by the UDHR and largely driven by the experience of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The UK was instrumental in the Convention’s drafting and adoption.

What is the European Court of Human Rights?

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), based in Strasbourg, France, was set up to rule on alleged breaches of the European Convention. Cases can be brought by individuals, groups or states which have ratified this treaty.

The court only reviews cases once all domestic avenues for remedy have been exhausted. Its influence can be seen in policy and law reform across Council of Europe member states on issues such as labour rights, domestic violence and media freedoms.

The ECHR interprets the rights in the Convention according to its ‘living instrument’ doctrine – a dynamic approach that takes into account ‘present-day conditions’, such as changing social norms and advances in technology, in order to give effect to the treaty’s purpose. 

No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 3, European Convention on Human Rights

Over the last decade or so, there has been significant pushback against the court from both architects of the European Convention system such as the UK and more recent entrants like Poland.

Controversies have tended to focus on politically sensitive issues where the court’s ‘living instrument’ approach has led to accusations of overreach, with its critics arguing that the decisions in question should properly be left to national parliaments and courts. 

Tensions have arisen, for example, around asylum and deportation cases and prisoner voting rights. As rule of law deteriorates in a number of Council of Europe countries, outright attacks on the court’s legitimacy have also arisen.

Complaints by UK governments in recent years about the court’s approach have culminated in a proposal to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights. It is currently unclear whether the government will attempt to pass this legislation before the next general election. 

The proposed Bill of Rights has been strongly criticised for undermining human rights protection in the UK and for damaging the UK’s international reputation. A key concern with the Bill is that it would make it harder to seek redress for human rights violations. UK courts would be restricted in the cases they could hear, forcing more individuals to take complaints to the ECHR.

Article 2nd half

What is the link between the climate crisis and human rights?

Climate change is severely impacting human rights – from the rights to health, water and food through to the right to life. The World Health Organization’s warning of an extra 250,000 deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress in the coming decades acutely illustrates future risks. 

While the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change acknowledged the relationship between human rights and climate, efforts to ensure human rights principles inform climate action have gathered momentum in the last few years.

Climate litigation has grown significantly as communities and activists seek to tackle the lack of urgency and ambition on the part of governments. Increasingly, these cases invoke human rights arguments.

Between 2015 and mid-2020 alone, 40 cases referencing human rights in relation to climate were brought before courts in 22 countries and three international bodies. The arguments focus on failures to uphold domestic and international pledges, inaction on climate change or harmful impacts of mitigation and adaptation strategies.

In the landmark Urgenda judgment of 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court found that the Dutch government had a legal duty to prevent dangerous climate change, ordering it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 per cent by the end of 2020.

While the case was decided on the basis of Dutch tort law, the court interpreted these obligations with reference to rights in the European Convention, in particular the right to life and the right to family and private life. As a consequence of this ruling, the Dutch government introduced more ambitious policies, including a plan to significantly reduce emissions from recently opened coal-fired power stations.

In Urgenda, the court was prepared to take into account human rights impacts which will only be felt in the future. Intergenerational arguments – a departure from the backwards glance normally employed in human rights cases – are also becoming more visible in climate litigation.

For example, when examining government targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 2021 that constitutional fundamental freedoms are ‘intertemporal guarantees’. And, in a case lodged by six Portuguese children against 33 governments, the ECHR is being asked to consider the disproportionate harm their generation will suffer as a result of the climate crisis.    

Cases are also being brought against companies, but these are harder to ground in human rights standards, as only states hold obligations under international human rights law. While the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights recognize that the private sector has a responsibility not to cause human rights harms, these principles are not legally binding.

However, in Milieudefensie et al. vs Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the Hague District Court was prepared to use the UN Guiding Principles in interpreting Dutch tort law, ordering Shell to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45 per cent by the end of 2030.

While this judgment is currently under appeal, a number of governments are translating the UN Guiding Principles into domestic law, opening up an avenue for successful litigation against companies.

Litigation is only one tool, though, for pursuing human rights outcomes on climate issues. In some instances, its greatest value may lie in mobilizing community action, energizing public debate and forcing governments into greater transparency.

Beyond the courts, human rights arguments can anchor demands for transparency and participation in the design of climate policies – both acutely important given the disproportionate impact felt by the most vulnerable and marginalized.

Human rights standards also set out a framework to build equity and accountability into national and global climate policies.

The future of human rights

Despite ongoing severe human rights crises and the corrosive effects of rising autocracy, individuals and communities continue to fight injustice and drive change rooted in respect for their rights.

In Uganda, for example, community groups have made progress in dismantling barriers to education and healthcare. In Bangladesh, Guatemala, Yemen and elsewhere, human rights defenders have been released from prison. And in India, where media freedom is in decline, the Supreme Court ordered the suspension of a sedition law that has been used to intimidate journalists and social activists.

While shifting geopolitical power is driving instability globally, it is also opening up opportunities for new leadership and creative alliance-building on human rights.

On climate change, for example, small island states have taken the lead, framing their arguments around the right to life and the existential threat faced by their populations.

Dynamic networks are also evident in partnerships between communities, activists, human rights organizations and diverse actors, including environmentalists, tech experts, health professionals, economists, journalists and artists – at local level and across borders.

The continuing legitimacy of human rights will depend on its ‘ownership’ by individuals and communities at a local level.

These networks help shape creative new strategies for addressing human rights issues driven by the needs and perspectives of those whose rights are at stake. Indeed, the continuing legitimacy of human rights will depend on its ‘ownership’ by individuals and communities at a local level.

The impact of widening inequalities, new technologies and the climate emergency will be defining features of the human rights landscape in coming decades. Given their adaptability to changing circumstances, human rights norms can provide a positive and values-based framework for developing pragmatic solutions to these rapidly accelerating challenges.

On inequalities, for example, human rights norms provide important protections against discrimination in access to areas such as education and healthcare, as well as minimum standards for what governments must provide.

Greater attention is also being given to what a rights-respecting economy would look like, including fundamental questions around taxation and allocation of resources. As public services face cuts in the current global economic climate, budget analysis and advocacy may increasingly become a method of holding governments to account on economic and social rights.  

On inequalities and on human rights generally, the role of the private sector is facing greater scrutiny. As rapid advances in technology disrupt and reshape society – from disinformation and hate speech to AI-assisted public sector decision-making, automation of jobs, telehealth and gene editing – human rights standards should be at the core both of corporate activity and government policies.

New technologies also hold unprecedented potential for progress on human rights, from improving access to education to preventing human trafficking.

While ethical initiatives proliferate in the technology sector, these are no substitute for understanding how existing human rights norms apply and ensuring that these principles underpin public policy, regulation, design and deployment of tech innovations.

The 75th anniversary of the UDHR is a potent moment for reflecting on the future trajectory for human rights.

How can this project, born out of another period of enormous social and global upheaval, act as an animating, principled map for navigating the many global and social challenges ahead?

Chatham House’s Human Rights Pathways initiative is looking at the strategies and alliances that could help transform this moment into one of affirmation and renewal.