What are human rights?

May 15 2018

Amnesty International


Human rights are the fundamental rights and freedoms that belong to every single one of us, anywhere in the world. Human rights apply no matter where you are from, what you believe in, or how you choose to live your life.


Human rights can never be taken away, but they can sometimes be restricted – for example if a person breaks the law, or in the interests of national security. These rights and freedoms are based on values like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and independence. But human rights are not just abstract concepts – they are defined and protected by law.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After the horrors of the Second World War, a document was written specifically to outline and protect every single human being’s basic rights. In 1948, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established to do exactly that.


There are 30 rights and freedoms set out by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). They include the right to asylum, the right to freedom from torture, the right to free speech and the right to education.


No one can take these rights and freedoms away from us. They belong to everybody.


Seven decades on, and the rights they included continue to form the basis for all international human rights law.


The UDHR remains fundamental to Amnesty’s work. It provides the bedrock of most of our campaigning, and it helps us to hold authorities to account when rights are abused.


Find out more about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.



The basics of human rights

Human rights have some key qualities, agreed by the international community.


They must be recognised as:

Universal: they belong to every single person


Inalienable: they cannot be taken away from us


Indivisible and interdependent: governments should not be able to pick and choose which rights are respected.


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, most of us wouldn’t think twice about talking about it with our friends online or in a 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 the UK don’t wake up on a school day celebrating their ability to exercise their right to education. But those who have fled countries in which they were denied the right to go to school may well appreciate it that bit more.


Stand up against human rights abuses

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 abuses are 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’s important that we do not take human rights for granted. And why it’s important that they are protected under international law, so that we can hold states and people to account when they commit atrocities.