We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
—United States Declaration of Independence, 1776
The ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his social, economic and cultural rights.
—International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, 1966
All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and related. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.
—Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Human rights belong to every member of the human family regardless of sex, race, nationality, socio-economic group, political opinion, sexual orientation or any other status.
Human rights are universal. They apply to all people simply on the basis of being human.
Human rights are inalienable. They cannot be taken away simply because we do not like the person seeking to exercise their rights. They can only be limited in certain tightly defined circumstances, and some rights, such as the prohibition on torture and slavery, can never be limited.
Human rights are indivisible. You cannot pick and choose which rights you want to honour. Many rights depend on each other to be meaningful – so, for example, the right to fair trial would be meaningless without the prohibition on discrimination, and the right to free speech must go hand in hand with the right to assemble peacefully.
Human rights are owed by the State to the people – this means public bodies must respect your human rights and the Government must ensure there are laws in place so that other people respect your human rights too. For example, the right to life requires not only that the actions of those working on behalf of the State do not lead to your death, but that laws are also in place to protect you from the actions of others that might want to do you harm.
Human rights were first recognised internationally by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. This was quickly followed by the adoption two years later of the European Convention on Human Rights. In 1998 the Human Rights Act was passed making the human rights in the European Convention on Human Rights directly enforceable in the UK. It entered into force on 2 October 2000.
The UK is also a party to a number of other international instruments that seek to protect and promote other human rights.
What are human rights?
Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.
Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law , general principles and other sources of international law. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.
Universal and inalienable
The principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. This principle, as first emphasized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, has been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, for example, noted that it is the duty of States to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems.
All States have ratified at least one, and 80% of States have ratified four or more, of the core human rights treaties, reflecting consent of States which creates legal obligations for them and giving concrete expression to universality. Some fundamental human rights norms enjoy universal protection by customary international law across all boundaries and civilizations.
Human rights are inalienable. They should not be taken away, except in specific situations and according to due process. For example, the right to liberty may be restricted if a person is found guilty of a crime by a court of law.
Interdependent and indivisible
All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education , or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination, are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others.
Equal and non-discriminatory
Non-discrimination is a cross-cutting principle in international human rights law. The principle is present in all the major human rights treaties and provides the central theme of some of international human rights conventions such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The principle applies to everyone in relation to all human rights and freedoms and it prohibits discrimination on the basis of a list of non-exhaustive categories such as sex, race, colour and so on. The principle of non-discrimination is complemented by the principle of equality, as stated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
Both Rights and Obligations
Human rights entail both rights and obligations. States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights. The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the individual level, while we are entitled our human rights, we should also respect the human rights of others.
Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world.
Ideas about human rights have evolved over many centuries. But they achieved strong international support following the Holocaust and World War II. To protect future generations from a repeat of these horrors, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. For the first time, the Universal Declaration set out the fundamental rights and freedoms shared by all human beings.
Find out more in film
'Everybody - we are all born free' is a short video produced by Amnesty, which brings the Declaration to life.
These rights and freedoms – based on core principles like dignity, equality and respect – inspired a range of international and regional human rights treaties. For example, they formed the basis for the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. The European Convention protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe. This includes the United Kingdom.
Until recently, people in the United Kingdom had to complain to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if they felt their rights under the European Convention had been breached.
However, the Human Rights Act 1998 made these human rights part of our domestic law, and now courts here in the United Kingdom can hear human rights cases. Find out more about how human rights work.
How do human rights help you?
Human rights are based on core principles like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy. They are relevant to your day-to-day life and protect your freedom to control your own life, effectively take part in decisions made by public authorities which impact upon your rights and get fair and equal services from public authorities.
The Human Rights Act 1998 (also known as the Act or the HRA) came into force in the United Kingdom in October 2000. It is composed of a series of sections that have the effect of codifying the protections in the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law.
All public bodies (such as courts, police, local governments, hospitals, publicly funded schools, and others) and other bodies carrying out public functions have to comply with the Convention rights.
This means, among other things, that individuals can take human rights cases in domestic courts; they no longer have to go to Strasbourg to argue their case in the European Court of Human Rights.
The Act sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms that individuals in the UK have access to. They include:
Download a full copy of the Act: Human Rights Act 1998.
For more information on where your human rights are set out, who the Human Rights Act applies to, and if human rights can be restricted, see How do human rights work?
For some case studies on how the HRA works in practice, see our publication entitledOurs to Own, which shows the difference that the HRA can make in people's everyday lives.
The Ministry of Justice has produced a guide to the Act and an Easy-Read booklet explaining what the Act means. Below are links to these resources as well as copies of the Human Rights Act in other languages:
- Human Rights Act - a guide
- Human Rights Act (pdf, 56K)
- A Guide to the Human Rights Act: a booklet for people with learning...
- Human Rights Act - Arabic (pdf, 290K)
- Human Rights Act - Cantonese (pdf, 364K)
- Human Rights Act - French (pdf, 125K)
- Human Rights Act - Gujarati (pdf, 324K)
- Human Rights Act - Polish (pdf, 269K)
- Human Rights Act - Punjabi (pdf, 335K)
- Human Rights Act - Somali (pdf, 120K)
- Human Rights Act - Tamil (pdf, 136K)
- Human Rights Act - Urdu (pdf, 623K)
- Human Rights Act - Welsh (pdf, 183K)
- Help with pdf files
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The foremost statement of the rights and freedoms of all human beings
All human beings are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms
On 10 December 1948 in Paris, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration was the first international recognition that all human beings have fundamental rights and freedoms and it continues to be a living and relevant document today.
The UDHR is a living document that matters not only in times of conflict and in societies suffering repression, but also in addressing social injustice and achieving human dignity in times of peace in established democracies. Non-discrimination, equality and fairness - key components of justice - form the basis of the Declaration. It consists of an introduction and 30 articles that set out a range of fundamental human rights and freedoms to which all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled.
Find out more in film
'Everybody - we are all born free' is a short video produced by Amnesty, which brings the Declaration to life and celebrates its 60th birthday.
Read the Declaration
The ideas and values of human rights can be traced through history to ancient times and in religious beliefs and cultures around the world. In Britain key developments include the Magna Carta of 1215, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 and the Bill of Rights of 1689. See the British Library's star items for more information on these and other key icons of liberty and progress.
After the Second World War, the international community vowed never again to allow such atrocities to take place. The United Nations was created and world leaders drew up a document to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere, always. The first draft of the Declaration was proposed in September 1948 with over 50 Member States participating in the final drafting. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at Palais de Chaillot, Paris.
It was drafted by representatives of all regions and legal traditions. It has over time been accepted as a contract between governments and their peoples. Virtually all states have accepted it. The Declaration has also served as the foundation for an expanding system of human rights protection that today focuses also on vulnerable groups such as disabled persons, indigenous peoples and migrant workers. It has been translated into more than 360 languages.
United Nations organisations around the globe have used the 60th anniversary year to focus on helping people everywhere to learn about their human rights. The theme of the UN campaign, 'Dignity and justice for all of us', reinforces the vision of the Declaration as a commitment to universal dignity and justice and not something that should be viewed as a luxury or a wish-list.
Since the Universal Declaration
The Universal Declaration is often considered the foundation stone for modern human rights. Since the Declaration was adopted in 1948 it has inspired over 80 international conventions and treaties, as well as numerous regional and domestic conventions, bills and legislation.
The Universal Declaration along with two very significant covenants makes up what is known as the International Bill of Rights. These are:
Find out more about the International Bill of Rights from the Office of the ....
Other international conventions that have been key to the development of human rights and of particular relevance to the work of our Commission are:
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
- International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW)
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
Each of these conventions have committees that monitor and develop the conventions to make sure they are effective. You can find out more about these conventions and committees from the Unite... .
Bringing the Universal Declaration home
The Universal Declaration has been adopted into regional versions to make clear how it applies in a specific region. In Europe, we have the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms which is monitored by the Council of Europe.
This Convention in turn was interpreted for the UK in the Human Rights Act (1998).
How do human rights work?
Where are your human rights set out?
The Human Rights Act 1998 sets out the rights in the UK which are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Act did not invent human rights for British people. Instead, it introduced into our domestic law some of the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international documents.
More specifically, it gave greater effect within the UK to the rights and freedoms protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty which British lawyers helped to draft.
So the Act meant that these basic rights and freedoms are now more easily protected within the UK.
Who does the Human Rights Act apply to?
The Act applies to all public authorities (such as central government departments, local authorities and NHS Trusts) and other bodies performing public functions (such as private companies operating prisons). These organisations must comply with the Act – and your human rights – when providing you with a service or making decisions that have a decisive impact upon your rights.
Although the Act does not apply to private individuals or companies (except where they are performing public functions), sometimes a public authority has a duty to stop people or companies abusing your human rights. For example, a public authority that knows a child is being abused by its parents has a duty to protect the child from inhuman or degrading treatment.
Who is protected by the Human Rights Act?
The Human Rights act covers everyone in the United Kingdom, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. Anyone who is in the UK for any reason is protected by the provisions in the Human Rights Act.
The rights in the HRA are known as 'justicible', which means that if an individual thinks they have been breached, they can take a court case against the public sector body that has breached them. For more information on how rights work in practice, see Using your human rights.
Your rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 are not the only rights you have. To find out how the law protects other rights, see Your rights.
Can human rights ever be restricted?
Some human rights – like the right not to be tortured – are absolute. These ‘absolute’ rights can never be interfered with by the government in any circumstances.
However, most human rights are not absolute. Some of these rights can be limited in certain circumstances, as set out in the specified Article of the European Convention on Human Rights. For example, your right to liberty can be limited only in specified circumstances such as if you are convicted and sentenced to a prison term. Other rights can only be restricted when certain general conditions are met, for example where this is necessary to protect the rights of others or in the interests of the wider community. For example, the government may be able to restrict your right to freedom of expression if you are encouraging racial hatred.
HUMAN RIGHTS DEFINED
What are your human rights?
Let’s start with some basic human rights definitions:
A member of the Homo sapiens species; a man, woman or child; a person.
Things to which you are entitled or allowed; freedoms that are guaranteed.
Human Rights: noun
The rights you have simply because you are human.
If you were to ask people in the street, “What are human rights?” you would get many different answers. They would tell you the rights they know about, but very few people know all their rights.
As covered in the definitions above, a right is a freedom of some kind. It is something to which you are entitled by virtue of being human.
Human rights are based on the principle of respect for the individual. Their fundamental assumption is that each person is a moral and rational being who deserves to be treated with dignity. They are called human rights because they are universal. Whereas nations or specialized groups enjoy specific rights that apply only to them, human rights are the rights to which everyone is entitled—no matter who they are or where they live—simply because they are alive.
Yet many people, when asked to name their rights, will list only freedom of speech and belief and perhaps one or two others. There is no question these are important rights, but the full scope of human rights is very broad. They mean choice and opportunity. They mean the freedom to obtain a job, adopt a career, select a partner of one’s choice and raise children. They include the right to travel widely and the right to work gainfully without harassment, abuse and threat of arbitrary dismissal. They even embrace the right to leisure.
In ages past, there were no human rights. Then the idea emerged that people should have certain freedoms. And that idea, in the wake of World War II, resulted finally in the document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the thirty rights to which all people are entitled.