Definition, Meaning, Classifications, Characteristics, Examples and Principles of Human Rights


Definition, Classification, Characteristics, Examples, Meaning, Principles of Human Rights

Definition of Human Rights

Human rights are like amour: They protect you. They are like rules, because they tell you how you can behave; and they are like judges, because you can appeal to them. They are abstract like emotions, and like emotions, they belong to everyone and they exist no matter what happens. They are like nature because they can be violated and like the spirit because they cannot be destroyed. Like time, they treat us all in the same way rich and poor, old and young, white and black, tall and short. They offer us respect, and they charge us to treat others with respect. Like goodness, truth and justice, we may sometimes disagree about their definition, but we recognize them when we see them.

Various definitions of human rights abounds, some rather, too narrow and inadequate, others open-ended and imprecise for easy comprehension. According to professor Osita Eze, “Human right represent demands or claims which individuals or group make on society, some of which are protected by Law, while others remain aspirations to be attained in future.

Simply put, Human Rights are inherent in man, they arise from the very nature of man as social animal. They are those rights which all human beings enjoy by virtue, of their humanity, whether black, white, yellow, and Malay or red, the deprivation of which would constitute a grave affront to one’s natural sense of justice.

Human rights themselves are not a new phenomenon or a new morality. They have a history dated back to antiquity. The rights of man as expression of political philosophy may be traceable to the writings of early naturalists. Thomas Paine, Hobbes, John Tocke, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Williams Kant to mention a few. There were the times when the writings of publicist had great impact on law and the society within which the law operated. According to these philosophers, every individual within society possesses certain rights which are inherent and which cannot be wantonly taken away and for which man is beholden to no human authority. That the major reason for individuals coming together to form a government is to enable these rights to be protected and fostered. Social contract, to which is traceable the origin of society itself is based on the concept of natural law to the effect that certain principles of justice are natural, that is, rational and unalterable and that the rights conferred by natural law are something to which every human being is entitled by virtual of the fact of being human and rational.

Based on this philosophy, man has over the centuries struggled and got human Rights or their understanding of them, enshrined in the constitutions and political traditions of their various societies. As Frederick Douglas aptly put it, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will." Many examples of the outcome of these struggles have undoubtedly influenced later Constitutional and legal development all over the world, the great Magna Carta of England (1215), the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of man and the citizen (1789), and the American Bills of Rights of 1791 etc.  Apart from individual struggles, the world community as a whole has in recent times drawn attention, in important declarations, to the universality of human rights and adopted a number of durable conventions in which these declarations have been enshrined. The first in the series was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This is a declaratory statement of those basic inalienable and inviolable rights, though mainly of civil and political nature, to which men are entitled. International Covenant and Civil and Political Right (1966) including its optional protocols; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, The European Convention for the Protection of Human rights and Fundamental Freedom (1950); the inter-America Convention on Human Rights (1970) and the African charter on Human Rights (1981).


Classification of Human Rights

The Concept of Generation

Since 1997, when Karel Vasak introduced the concept of generations into the corpus of human rights discourse, the debate has taken many forms and shapes. Vasak traced the developments of human rights and concluded that, basically, rights are three generations. The first he called iberte (Liberty) i.e Civil and Political Rights, the second he termed egalite (equality), which relates to Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the third he termed fratenite (solidarity), refereeing to those rights that are held by the collectives in other words, “ group or people’s right. These classifications, sometimes discribed by a colour scheme of “blue” “red” and “green,” are based on three different philosophies. Each generation has its destructive characteristic but it suffices to note that the first generation rights are negative rights or immunity claims in citizen towards the state, in the sense that they limit the power of a government and protect people’s rights against its power. They relate to the sanctity of the individual and his rights within the socio-political milieu in which he is located. They imply that no government or society should act against individuals in certain ways that would deprive them of inherent political or personal rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and security of person, freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion.

Second Generation Human Rights

The second generation rights are claims to social equality consisting of economic, social and cultural rights. They are positive rights in that they enhance the power of government to do something to the person to enable her or him in some ways. They are generally interpreted as programmatic clauses, obligating governments and legislature to pursue social policies, but do not create individual claims. They require the affirmative action of government for the implementation.

Third Generation Human Rights

Unlike the first two generation rights which focus largely on individuals, the third generation rights include the rights of people and groups. It has received increasing rhetorical affirmation at the international level though “only the people’s rights to self-determination and to disposal of natural wealth, included in the international covenants have received authoritative acceptance in international law. Other group rights include “the right to development, the right to peace, the right to environment, the right to ownership of the common heritage of mankind, and the right to communication.


Characteristics of Human Rights

Philosophers may continue to argue about the nature of human rights, but the international community started its astonishing commitment to human rights through the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, the international community has established the UDHR's powerful concepts in numerous international, regional and domestic legal instruments. The UDHR was not intended to be legally binding, but the establishment of its norms in numerous subsequent binding treaties (otherwise known as ‘conventions' or ‘covenants') makes the legal standing of its norms unquestionable today.  According to these principles:

Human rights are inalienable: This means that you cannot lose them, because they are linked to the very fact of human existence, they are inherent to all human beings. In particular circumstances some though not all may be suspended or restricted. For example, if someone is found guilty of a crime, his or her liberty can be taken away; or in times of national emergency, a government may declare this publicly and then derogate from some rights, for example in imposing a curfew restricting freedom of movement.

Human rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated: This means that different human rights are intrinsically connected and cannot be viewed in isolation from each other. The enjoyment of one right depends on the enjoyment of many other rights and no one right is more important than the rest.

Human rights are universal: Which means that they apply equally to all people everywhere in the world, and with no time limit. Every individual is entitled to enjoy his or her human rights without distinction of "race" or ethnic background, colour, sex, sexual orientation, disability, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, birth or other status.

We should note that the universality of human rights does not in any way threaten the rich diversity of individuals or of different cultures. Universality is not synonymous with uniformity. Diversity requires a world where everyone is equal, and equally deserving of respect. Human rights serve as minimum standards applying to all human beings; each state and society is free to define and apply higher and more specific standards. For example, in the field of economic, social and cultural rights we find the obligation to undertake steps to achieve progressively the full realization of these rights, but there is no stipulated position on raising taxes to facilitate this. It is up to each country and society to adopt such policies in the light of their own circumstances.


 Examples of Human Rights

 As adapted from (Nowak, 2005: 2), they are as follows:

• Right to life

• Freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

• Freedom from slavery, servitude and forced labour

• Right to liberty and security of person

• Right of detained persons to be treated with humanity

• Freedom of movement

• Right to a fair trial

• Prohibition of retroactive criminal laws

• Right to recognition as a person before the law

• Right to privacy

• Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

• Freedom of opinion and expression

• Prohibition of propaganda for war and of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred

• Freedom of assembly

• Freedom of association

• Right to marry and found a family

• Right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, vote, be elected and have access to public office

• Right to equality before the law and non-discrimination

 In the area of economic, social and cultural Human Rights

• Right to work

• Right to just and favourable conditions of work

• Right to form and join trade unions

• Right to social security

• Protection of the family

• Right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing

• Right to health

• Right to education

 In the area of collective Human Rights

• Right of peoples to:

• Self-determination

• Development

• Free use of their wealth and natural resources

• Peace

• A healthy environment

 Other collective Human Rights:

• Rights of national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities

• Rights of indigenous peoples.


Meaning of Human Rights

The concept of human rights is very elusive and slippery. It has been conceptualized variously by different scholars. It means one thing for the natural law theorists and another for the positivists. Its conceptualization is always color with the ideological orientation of an individual behind the conceptualization.

Hence, the history of human rights is replete with attempts to conceptualize its real meaning, leaving mankind with critical debates as what is meant by human rights. To start with, there is an imperative need to clarify the meaning of the word “right” (Agundu, 2009). Rights are due entitlements that individuals lay claims to. They are mostly natural endowment. 18 In political parlance the concept of “human rights” includes all the freedoms the individual can claim on the sole basis of his or her humanity, rights which are safeguarded by society on ethical grounds. Human rights are rights that people are born with and to which everyone has equal entitlement regardless of gender, ethnic origin or beliefs.

They are an essential principle in the organization of modern society, and the very basis of peaceful cohabitation at the national and international levels, in the community and in the family (Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) 2008, 3). The concept of human rights is the result of a long and continuing process of development that has not yet reached its conclusion. It has its roots in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and in the religious concept that “all men are equal in the eyes of God”. Together with the secular tradition of natural rights – human rights have their roots in human nature and the inherent dignity of humanity – the concept of human rights has progressively developed as an ethical standard through the ages (FDFA, 2008, 6).

Human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. These are moral claims which are inalienable and inherent in all individuals by virtue of their humanity alone, irrespective of caste, colour, creed, and place of birth, sex, cultural difference or any other consideration. These claims are articulated and formulated in what is today known as human rights. Human rights are sometimes referred to as fundamental rights, basic rights, inherent rights, natural rights and birth rights. Human rights are not just abstract values such as liberty, equality, and security. They are rights, entitlements that ground particular social practices to realize those values.

Human rights claims express not mere aspirations, suggestions, requests, or laudable ideas but rights-based demands. And in contrast to other grounds on which goods, services, and opportunities might be demanded - for example, justice, utility, divine donation, contract, or beneficence - human rights are owed to every human being, as a human being (Donnelly, 2005).


Basic Principles of Human Rights

The basic principles of Human Rights are as follows. Human rights are universal “Human rights are foreign to no culture and native to all nations; they are universal.” (Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Address at the University of Tehran on Human Rights Day, 10 December 1997 cited in Nowak, 2005).

Human rights are held by all persons equally, universally and forever. Human rights are universal: they are always the same for all human beings everywhere in the world. You do not have human rights because you are a citizen of any country but because you are a member of the human family. This means children have human rights as well as adults (Compasito, ND: 15). Human rights are universal because they are based on every human being’s dignity, irrespective of race, colour, sex, ethnic or social origin, religion, language, nationality, age, sexual orientation, disability or any other distinguishing characteristic. Since they are accepted by all States and peoples, they apply equally and indiscriminately to every person and are the same for everyone everywhere (Nowak, 2005).

Human rights are inalienable: Human rights are inalienable: you cannot lose these rights any more than you can cease to be a human being (Compasito, ND: 15). Human rights are inalienable insofar as no person may be divested of his or her Human rights save under clearly defined legal circumstances. For instance, a person’s right to liberty may be restricted if he or she is found guilty of a crime by a court of law (Nowak, 2005: 4).

Human rights are indivisible and interdependent: Human rights are indivisible: no-one can take away a right because it is ‘less important’ or ‘non-essential’. Human rights are interdependent: together human rights form a complementary framework. For example, your ability to participate in local decision making is directly affected by your right to express yourself, to associate with others, to get an education and even to obtain the necessities of life (Compasito, ND: 15).

Human rights are indivisible and interdependent. Because each human right entails and depends on other human rights, violating one such right affects the exercise of other human rights. For example, the right to life presupposes respect for the right to food and to an adequate standard of living. The right to be elected to public office implies access to basic education. The defense of economic and social rights presupposes freedom of expression, of assembly and of association. Accordingly, civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights are complementary and equally essential to the dignity and integrity of every person. Respect for all rights is a prerequisite to sustainable peace and development (Nowak, 2005: 4).

The principle of non-discrimination

 Some of the worst human rights violations have resulted from discrimination against specific groups. The right to equality and the principle of non-discrimination, explicitly set out in international and regional human rights treaties, are therefore central to human rights. The right to equality obliges States to ensure observance of human rights without discrimination on any grounds, including sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, membership of a national minority, property, birth, age, disability, sexual orientation and social or other status. More often than not, the discriminatory criteria used by States and non-State actors to prevent specific groups from fully enjoying all or some human rights are based on such characteristics (Nowak, 2005) Human rights reflect basic human needs. They establish basic standards without which people cannot live in dignity. To violate someone’s human rights is to treat that person as though he or she were not a human being. To advocate human rights is to demand that the human dignity of all people be respected (Compasito, ND: 15). In claiming these human rights, everyone also accepts responsibilities: to respect the rights of others and to protect and support people whose rights are abused or denied. Meeting these responsibilities means claiming solidarity with all other human beings. All people everywhere have the same human rights which no one can take away. This is the basis of freedom, justice and peace in the world (UDHR, 1948). All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms (World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna 1993, paragraph 5).

The principles of equality, universality and non-discrimination do not preclude recognising that specific groups whose members need particular protection should enjoy special rights. This accounts for the numerous human rights instruments specifically designed to protect the rights of groups with special needs, such as women, aliens, stateless persons, refugees, displaced persons, minorities, indigenous peoples, and children, persons with disabilities, migrant workers and detainees. Group-specific human rights, however, are compatible with the principle of universality only if they are justified by special (objective) reasons, such as the group’s vulnerability or a history of discrimination against it. Otherwise, special rights could amount to privileges equivalent to discrimination against other groups (Nowak, 2005).

Post a Comment