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Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. They are rights inherent to all human beings, irrespective of their nationality, gender, race, ethnic origin, color, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion and language, social or economic status.

Everyone is equally entitled to human rights without discrimination. While we distinguish between civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, these rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

Human rights are generally individual rights, although some rights, such as the right to self-determination, are collective rights held by entire peoples or groups.

International human rights law first and foremost obligates states to act or to refrain from acting in certain ways, in order to promote and protect human rights and the fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups. And it is recognized that international organizations and non-state actors, such as armed groups and businesses, must also respect basic human rights guarantees.

All societies, whether in written or unwritten tradition, had systems in place to protect conventional standards of proper behavior, as well as justice for all. While the roots of human rights lie in prior tradition and documents that these societies created and lived by, the revolutionary idea of rights inherent to human nature can be traced to Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Documents such as the Magna Carta, the Manden Charter of the Malian Empire, the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the American Bill of Rights embodied ideas of guarantees and rights that individuals could invoke against the state. However, none of these documents offered equal protection, as they all excluded large parts of the population.

The 19th century movement to end first the transatlantic slave trade and then slavery itself was the first international human rights campaign that truly embraced the idea that all human beings are created equal. Major campaigns in the 20th century focused on women’s electoral rights and labor rights.

However, the notion of universal human rights, protected under international law, was only embraced in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Basic principles of human rights were captured by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 when he spoke of a world founded on four essential freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust served as a catalyst for advancing the cause of human rights as they propelled human rights onto the global agenda and conscience. International outrage over Nazi atrocities greatly influenced the standards for what today are considered gross violations of human rights – summary executions, enforced disappearances, enslavement, rape, and torture. Having borne witness to some of the worst crimes against humanity, the world’s governments called for human rights standards to protect citizens from abuses by their governments, standards against which nations could be held accountable for the treatment of those living within their borders. The United Nations was founded with the purpose to promote universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

To advance this goal, the United Nations established a Commission on Human Rights. The Commission established a committee to draft a document spelling out the meaning of the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the UN Charter. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the members of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. This declaration launched what amounted to a revolution in international law. How a government treated its citizens became an international concern, and no longer a domestic issue that other states were precluded from interfering in. The declaration has served as the basis for the constitutions of many nations. It has achieved the status of customary international law because states have accepted it as the minimum legal standard of treatment that must be afforded to everyone.

Ending racism and colonialism became the first area of focus for international human rights, with newly independent states from Africa and Asia in the forefront of the movement. Colonized and oppressed peoples in Africa and beyond proclaimed their independence in exercise of their right to self-determination. In 1965, against the backdrop of de-colonization and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the United Nations adopted its first universal human rights treaty: the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.

One year later, two more treaties were adopted to build a more comprehensive body of legally binding human rights norms and create mechanisms for enforcing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These two covenants extend rights to all persons and prohibit discrimination. Each of them has been ratified by more than 160 nations.

In addition to the covenants and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN has adopted six more core human rights treaties, which address torture, disappearances, as well as the rights of women, children, migrant workers, and persons with disabilities. Many other treaties also address human rights-related issues such as genocide, the status of refugees, human trafficking, and international labor standards.

Based on the obligations they have voluntarily assumed as parties to human rights treaties, states have the primary responsibility to protect human rights. They must ensure that legal frameworks, public policies, and the authorities implementing them respect international human rights standards. For instance, the state’s justice system must abide by international standards to ensure that trials are fair and that detained persons are always kept in humane conditions and under no circumstances subjected to torture.

States must also protect human rights against undue infringement by private individuals – for example, by criminalizing all forms of domestic violence and making sure that perpetrators are prosecuted and the victims protected from further abuses. They must also protect human rights against the threats of armed conflict, natural disasters, or armed groups – including taking special measures to address the specific needs of internally displaced persons. African countries have led the development of international law in this regard by adopting the Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. This is the only regional treaty of its kind.

Non-governmental organizations have played fundamental roles in focusing the attention of the international community on human rights. For instance, NGO activities surrounding the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, drew unprecedented attention to serious violations of the human rights of women. International NGOs such as Amnesty International, the Anti-Slavery Society, Human Rights Watch, and Survivors International monitor the actions of governments and businesses, give voice to victims, and advocate for human rights principles to be upheld. Perhaps even more important, local human rights organizations are campaigning on a daily basis against injustice and inequality. As human rights defenders, they enjoy special protection and must not be subject to any reprisals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression.

States must take positive action to fulfill human rights and allow for their effective enjoyment. Every state must prioritize its resources to address the core minimum needs of its population – including food, water, basic education and health care and decent shelter.

And there must be representation of marginalized groups in state institutions and decision-making bodies. We will take a closer look at the protections due marginalized groups in another lesson in this course.

Protecting human rights to benefit all:

In this lesson, we will examine how we identify marginalized groups. We will look at the unequal burden placed on them. We will talk about the difference between equality versus equity and why that difference matters for marginalized groups. Finally, we will explore the ways that culture, economics, and religion are sometimes used to violate the rights of individuals.

Those in the majority or positions of power are charged with ensuring that people can equally access opportunities, goods and services. Those denied equal access, are commonly referred to as being marginalized – socially disadvantaged and relegated to the fringes of society.

People all over the world are often marginalized based upon race, color, sexuality, gender, disability, economic or social status. People who are marginalized may not have fair access to education, jobs, housing, or health care, and violence is sometimes directed at marginalized individuals. To ensure that all people in a particular country have access to equal opportunities, governments often elevate marginalized groups through affirmative action, or other special protections.

Equal protection requires active efforts to ensure that members of all groups enjoy equal rights. Equal protection allows for celebration of diversity and allows each member to contribute fully to society.

The ideal of equal access is fundamental to uplifting marginalized groups in any society. While equality refers to how one is treated, and equity refers to what one is given, “fairness” remains the essence of both. Fair access has a different interpretation in a given society; however, we all have a role to play to ensure governments take action to make special provisions for previously disadvantaged groups, granting equal access and equal opportunity. Eliminating discrimination and removing the burdens it imposes creates an environment that promotes equality. Here, everyone is entitled to the same level of access and can avail themselves of the societal benefits granted to non-marginalized groups.

Youth have played a critical role in shaping the disability rights movement going back to the 1970s with Ed Roberts at Berkeley. He was accepted into the university but because of his disability accommodation needs, the university could not house him with the other students. So he lived on a floor of a local hospital and eventually other college students with disabilities began moving in as well. They created social opportunities, organized together, and made their own decisions for their care. Their work lead to what is now known as the Independent Living movement. The movement is a critical tenet of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and other subsequent pieces of U.S. legislation, like the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Through Youth ACT, youth and adults work as partners to improve local systems, such as transportation, education, and health care for all people. Youth ACT leaders have created support and advocacy groups in their communities and universities, educated peers and adults, and improved services and programs for people with disabilities around the world.

As you can see, there are things you can do to lift up marginalized groups. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an international rights treaty that provides a framework for creating legislation and policies around the world that embrace the rights and dignity of all people with disabilities. Constitutions or legislation can create special protections for marginalized groups, to ensure that all people in a country have access to equal opportunities.

The youth-led independent living movement and the ADA were the model for CRPD.

If you see a problem of access, there are steps you can take to address it. You can start a petition, educate others on the importance of the issue, and meet with policymakers. You can have the difficult conversations around issues faced by people who are marginalized with others who want to help make a difference. You can talk with political leaders, organizations, and share personal stories of those who have been marginalized. Your story and your lived experience are as important to shaping policies, services, and programs as are the statistics delivered by researchers and political leaders.

Diverse people all over the world challenge human rights with their personal beliefs around culture, economics, and religion. This leads to the cultural isolation of groups, lack of access for others due to limited financial resources, and restrictions placed on groups as a result of religious practices. Our personal beliefs do not grant us permission to violate others’ rights to practice their personal beliefs. The pursuit of human rights by one group may also lead to the violation of the human rights of another group. This is why it is so important to work together to abolish any laws, customs and practices that discriminate.

Practices and policies must be evaluated regularly. New practices and policies must be implemented. People in power must be held accountable for making decisions that represent everyone, especially those who have been marginalized.

We will examine more ways to guarantee equal access and practical ways that you can work to ensure the human rights of all in another lesson

Ensuring the human rights of all:

First, how to think rationally about human rights globally and in your own country. Second, ways that you can push back against the efforts to violate the human rights of others and finally, how to advocate for the human rights of yourself and others.

Human rights advocacy requires a change of mindset, and a break from cultural norms, traditions, and customs that encourage, fail to recognize, or tolerate violations of human rights.

You should think beyond your own rights and think of the rights of those that are not in a position to fight for themselves.

It starts with acquainting yourself with current affairs in your own country, through news, social media, and other trusted sources.

Secondly, you must familiarize yourself with various human rights documents at the international, national, and regional level.

Third of all, and most importantly, it’s essential that you identify needs in your community. Talk with people; ask them about their needs and concerns. Identify the marginalized populations and who has the duty to ensure that their rights are protected. Human rights advocacy involves making sure that those who have the duty to provide for and protect marginalized populations fulfill that duty to make sure that society is inclusive.

Inclusion means having everyone involved in the conversation, including the marginalized.

Marginalized populations are often put into isolation, away from the community. For example, separate systems for girls, or the physically and mentally disabled, or tribal minority groups. Human rights advocacy is based in the belief that all people are stakeholders in democracy and all members of a community must be included in guarding against human rights abuses.

Learn to think critically, to debate issues with logic and facts and to know when something is not done right. Take, for example, people living with physical or mental disability. Who has the duty to provide reasonable accommodation?

The issue of human rights has evolved internationally over time. Slavery and colonial domination, for example, were once justified as sanctioned by God. Now both are properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

The more you marginalize people, the greater your problems. Violating human rights leads to instability in the form of economic stagnation, security threats, and breakdowns in civil society structures and democratic institutions.

The first way to prevent human rights violations is to know your own rights. This starts with understanding what human rights are and educating yourself on how to seek justice if your rights are violated.

Then you must live a life that practices what you preach. Educate people around you. An educated person in the midst of ignorant people is also an ignorant person, unless working to educate others.

You can start on an individual level. Many violations have become a thing of the past because organizations, people, and groups spoke out and took a stand against human rights abuses. You should never allow someone to do the wrong thing without protest or being unchallenged. Engage and educate those who violate human rights by staying positive and focusing on how you would bring people together.

As an advocate for human rights, you must not only make people aware of your rights but also make them aware of the rights of others. Violating one person’s human rights is a violation of everyone’s. Speak out, politely but forcefully. Speaking in a rude tone to the violator makes the victim more prone to violations. And when you report a violation, it is your duty to follow up.

The fight for human rights is vital in the promotion and protection of individual rights. One can be an advocate for human rights by joining or starting a group in your local community. Local groups are a good way to promote human rights, as they help create awareness. Sometimes people only need to be brought together to advance the cause of human rights. Work with people to empower them to be their own best advocates.

Consider collaborating with government or non-governmental organizations working on these issues. This will help to better maximize resources, particularly with regard to finance, staff, and outreach. You can work with these organizations to collect statistics to catalog abuses, as well as inform policies to protect human rights. You can also work with them to provide assistance for victims. Engage with communities and educate the public on violations and the obligation to elevate and defend marginalized groups. You should also support the work of human rights advocates who are fighting for a cause in which you believe.

Support initiatives to redress the causes and effects of past human rights abuses that may keep marginalized communities from emerging from historic violations. In the U.S., grassroots campaigns, like those of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination based on race. That fight for equality meant better treatment and representation for African Americans in American society.

As a responsible person, stand up for your rights and the rights of others in order to support human rights for all.


  1. Young African Leaders Initiative
  2. Mary Kalemkerian, Human Rights Officer, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
  3. Jennifer Thomas, Youth Development Specialist, Institute for Educational Research
  4. Peter Sampson, Mediation Advisor United Nations Office for West Africa