What are Human Rights?

    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.
    (art.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Human Rights are a set of rights which each and every individual possesses, regardless of their nationality, their religion, the colour of their skin, etc. These rights are defined as universal and inalienable, guaranteed for all on the single condition of being human.

The field of Human Rights is vast, covering a large number of rights; for example: the right to freedom, right to equality in front of the law, right to freedom of movement, right to a nationality, right to the freedom of association, right to a decent standard of living, right to work, etc…

You can find a list of themes covered by Human Rights on the website of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Human Rights at the international level

Human Rights as a concept has been evolving at the international level since 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by the former Commission on Human Rights, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first text to proclaim the universality of Human Rights. It enshrines 30 fundamental rights which the signatory States have committed to respect and implement within their territories. Today, many States have included some of these rights in their Constitutions.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered an ideal to reach, and is not legally binding. However, accepted by all, the rights enshrined in the Declaration are considered international customary law.

In order to create a minimum protection standard, this Declaration was to be quickly reinforced by a set of international treaties, notably the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), finally adopted in 1966. By ratifying these treaties, States commit to respecting and guaranteeing the rights contained within by enacting the necessary laws, and to be evaluated periodically by a group of experts.

Together, the Declaration and the two Covenants are unofficially known as the "International Bill of Human Rights" and are the foundations of the international Human Rights system.

Today there are multiple classifications for Human Rights, but we regularly speak of three generations of rights to highlight the development of this system. Each of these generations covers a different domain of protection.

  • 1st generation rights, also referred to as "negative rights"

    These are civil and political rights, notably present in the ICCPR. They are called "negative" as they imply the non-interference of the State for these rights to be fully promoted.
    Examples: right to life, right to the freedom of expression, right to not be tortured, right to vote, etc.

  • 2nd generation rights, also referred to as "positive rights"

    These are economic and social rights, included in the ICESCR. Unlike negative rights, these require the State to intervene in order to be respected.
    Examples: right to education, right to work, right to health, right to food, etc.

  • 3rd generation rights, also referred to as "collective rights"

    These rights appear in the first article of the ICCPR and ICESCR, and more recently in new documents (eg: Declaration on the Right to Development, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities), testifying of the constant evolution of the system, in order to better protect individuals.
    Examples: right to development, right to peace, right to self-determination, minority rights, etc.

These rights depend on the principles of equality and non-discrimination, and are interdependent and indivisible: improving access to one right creates a general positive trend, while the deprivation of a right threatens the overall balance of the system.

For more information on existing treaties, visit the pages on Universal Human Rights Instruments and  Core International Human Rights Instruments.

Human Rights at the regional level

Other treaties were also signed at the regional level in order to guarantee Human Rights.

Africa
The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights adopted in 1981 (entered into force in 1986) by the Organisation of African Unity (today African Union).

Americas
The American Convention on Human Rights (1969) adopted by the Organization of American States.

Europe
The European Convention on Human Rights, signed by the Council of Europe member States (1953). The European Court of Human Rights is tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Convention and may be seized by victims of a human rights violation.

Middle-East/North Africa
The Arab Charter on Human Rights adopted in 2004 by the League of Arab States and entered into force in 2008.