9 Jan 2017

Text: Corinna / Translation: Miriam & Daniel

#What are human rights?

 Human rights are the rights that are afforded to every human being. Every person, regardless of their origin, age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, political views or sexual orientation, has access to the same fundamental human rights which serve as a basis for a life in dignity.

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These rights are automatically given and do not have to be awarded by a state. They embody the essential rights every human should be entitled to, such as the right to life and freedom, the freedom of expression and equality in the eyes of the law. These rights should under no circumstances be violated.

Our human rights are documented in various international agreements and contracts, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). They can also be found in many national constitutions.

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#All humans are equal…

… but some are more equal than others.

The idea behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was to codify fundamental rights that are the same for all human beings. This was put in place in order to bridge differences in culture, religion, political views and history, and to unify common fundamental principles and ideas of morality. The Human Rights Charter was influenced by ideas and concepts from Hinduism, Confucianism, the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions, as well as European and Asian cultures.

The concept of human rights was, however, mainly influenced by Western values and is largely an expression of Western culture. The idea was first developed during the French and the American Revolution, as well as the Enlightenment in the 18th century due to social, economic and political changes. Therefore, some countries reject the West’s idea about human rights under the umbrella of cultural relativism. Asian philosophers and scientists, for example, recognise that human rights are universal by nature, but that nationality, religion and culture must not be neglected. In Asian cultures, individual and civil rights come after the rights of the state and the community.

Photo: Christopher Michel/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

Another problem with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the related human rights protection is that the Charter was a political and idealistic project but no international court was established to ensure the implementation and compliance of these rights. Hence, human rights must be integrated into the national law of each country and implemented accordingly. Human rights are therefore only relatively universal – every human has them but not everybody can enjoy them fully.

Excluding cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes which are presided over by the International Criminal Court, each sovereign state can interpret human rights within their territory according to their own cultural ideas. Other states are unable to do anything other than observe, criticise and exert economic and political pressure whenever they made aware of violations or breaches of human rights. The international community has the responsibility to protect victims in cases of mass violence and Crimes against International Criminal Law.

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#Human rights protection on an international scale

Some of the international human rights conventions are equipped with their own institutions to monitor the implementation and compliance of written laws. These institutions include the UN Human Rights Committee, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED). These committees accept complaints, investigate cases and publish their suggestions and concerns. They are, however, not legally binding.

In 2006, the Human Rights Council was established to ensure the protection and implementation of human rights. The Human Rights Council addresses and analyses human rights abuses in all 193 UN member states using the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), as well as the compliance of international and regional conventions. Every four and a half years, every state is required to submit a report on the human rights situation in their country and their stance on how to deal with any present issues. The report is supplemented with a summary by various UN committees and a range of non-governmental organisations, human rights organisations and civil-society actors. This procedure is of high-ranking political interest, for every UN member state has to justify itself in front of the council and the other member states, and has to clarify which measures are taken to ensure the implementation of human rights. Unfortunately, even the Council can only provide suggestions – which are, once again, not legally binding.

Photo: Luigi Morante/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Human rights protection on a regional scale

#The Arab World

In 2004, the Council of the Arab League founded the Arab Committee on Human Rights based on the Arab Charter on Human Rights. All member states have to submit a report on the human rights situation in their countries every three years, and they have to clarify their measures to guarantee the implementation of human rights. The committee examines and discusses the reports, and subsequently gives recommendations. These are, however, not legally binding – a non-compliance cannot be punished. The committee is merely a supervising entity.


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), originally founded to improve the economic, political and social cooperation in the region, passed the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012. However, this non-legally binding declaration has been criticised by the UN and various human rights organisations as it includes clauses which could cause international human rights standards to become impeded.

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In 1969, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted the American Convention on Human Rights. On its basis, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was founded in 1979. Together with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, its objective is to implement the international legal provisions for the protection of human rights. Individuals, groups and non-governmental organisations can file complaints or table petitions to the commission, who will then make efforts to find a solution for the problem. Should they not be able to come to an agreement, the commission can forward the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) whose judgements have to be adhered to. The United States, Canada and some Caribbean States have not ratified the human rights convention and therefore do not fall within the ICJ’s jurisdiction.


In 1981, the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union) founded the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the basis of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The commission aims to promote and protect human rights and the rights of ethnic groups. States, individuals and institutions can file complaints to the commission, which will then be investigated. Additionally, all member states regularly have to submit reports on the human rights situation in their countries, which are then observed and analysed. In 2006, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights was founded to support the commission. The Court has full jurisdiction with regard to the Human Rights Charter and holds an advisory role within the African Union. The Court’s decisions are legally binding. However, its jurisdiction is only recognised by half of the Union’s members.

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The European Convention on Human Rights was drafted and adopted by the Council of Europe in 1950. With this, Europe created a legally binding and enforceable convention protecting fundamental rights under international law for the first time. In 1959, the European Court of Human Rights was founded to ensure the implementation of those rights. If the rights of individuals, groups or non-governmental organisations are unsuccessfully enacted by national authorities, they can lodge a complaint to the Court. The Court’s judgement is final and legally binding – and all states are obliged to implement it.

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