What are Human Rights?

Human rights, as defined by the UDHR, are universal rights that all human beings possess. Human rights are often divided into two general categories: political and civil rights, which the U.S. Bill of Rights addresses so well; and social and economic rights, which our Constitution addresses not at all. Human rights can be violated by governments or by private individuals. They are not just actions like torture, which the media has almost totally equated with the term “human rights,” but include other indignities, such as a child being beaten up by another child, a father abandoning his family, or an employer harassing an employee.

Human rights also imply responsibilities. For example, Article 29 of the UDHR declares: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” Article 30 clearly states that it is the responsibility of all individuals, groups, and the state to avoid taking away any right listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Even the most important United Nations declarations and treaties (often called covenants or conventions) pertaining to human rights find rare mention in our social studies textbooks. Foremost among them is the UDHR, a statement of rights that has been agreed to by almost every country in the world, but is not a binding international treaty. The two principal treaties involving human rights are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the U.S. has signed and ratified) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which the U.S. has signed but not ratified).

Even when the United States signs and ratifies a human rights treaty, it often imposes a “reservation” that restricts the power of the treaty within the United States. For example, the U.S. has reserved the right not to honor treaties that outlaw the death penalty for juveniles. The stated reason for some reservations taken by the United States is that our system of federalism does not allow the national government to place such binding restrictions on states.

One argument against giving extensive coverage to human rights in social studies courses might be that much of existing human rights law has been rendered not binding in U.S. courts. On the other hand, a case can be made that students should be informed about human rights treaties in order to make intelligent judgments about whether our government should support them. For example, should the U.S. ratify treaties that ensure human rights for specific groups of people, including women, children, and indigenous peoples?

Many human rights treaties have provisions that make them important whether or not a treaty is enforceable in court. For example, they often require countries that sign them to report on the state of human rights in that country. Two treaties with reporting requirements that the United States has signed and ratified are the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Race Convention.

“Human rights” refers to a set of values regarding how human beings should act toward one another that was universally agreed upon when the nations of the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But just how universal is that agreement? Some would say that the U.S. Constitution embodies this set of values; but, as noted above, while our constitution is strong in the areas of political and civil rights, it does not address economic and social rights.

We have heard many criticisms of the “values of our society” or the “lack of values of our young people” over the past few years. Books on virtue, the communitarian movement, and character education are all efforts to address this issue. Unfortunately, these re-examinations of American values rarely look to the concept of human rights for the value system we all share.



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