Human rights are relatively new to international law. But these values safeguard our dignity and protect against government oppression around the world.

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Many nations vow to defend human rights. And many fall short.

Torture, slavery, political repression, discrimination, extrajudicial killings — the list of violations is long, and few countries are blameless.

Relatively new in international law, the concept of human rights has made headway since it emerged to underpin revolutions in France and the United States. In many countries, rights that once were systematically trampled are now taken for granted.

But violations of basic rights persist in some parts of the world, a reflection of different political systems, geopolitics and economic development.


The notion of universal human rights did not exist among ancient peoples who often lived under tyrants and despots.

The concept that each human has inviolable rights ripened in the 18th-century Enlightenment and was at the core of both the French and American Revolutions.

Among the first rights to be pursued was universal suffrage. Today, there is broad international consensus on the right to life, to a fair trial and to education; freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion and of the press; protection against enslavement; and prohibition of genocide.


1215: Magna Carta charter in England refers to the right of habeas corpus, protecting against arbitrary imprisonment.

1689: Bill of Rights enshrines the right to free elections and freedom of speech in England’s Parliament.

1776: U.S. Declaration of Independence proclaims the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

1789: U.S. Bill of Rights protects freedom of religion, speech and assembly; a free press; trial by jury.

1789: France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen says all citizens are equal under the law.

1948: Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marks the first global expression of human rights. It includes the right to life; prohibition of slavery; and freedom of thought, association, conscience and religion.

Human rights, according to the UN, “ensure that a human being will be able to fully develop and use human qualities such as intelligence, talent and conscience and satisfy his or her spiritual and other needs.”

Today, many UN peacekeeping operations include human rights-related mandates. The UN Security Council can deal with serious human rights violations, particularly in conflict areas.

State of play

With varying degrees of success, recent movements have focused on women’s rights, civil rights of minorities, workers’ rights, freedom of speech and of assembly, economic development and LGBT rights.

Yet few countries escape accusations that they violate some human rights, and nations disagree over which rights deserve priority.

Despite having a relatively developed set of laws protecting citizens’ rights, even the United States draws criticism for its military use of drones, torture in Iraq under former President George W. Bush, electronic surveillance and police brutality.

China is criticized for its treatment of Muslim Uighurs and dissidents, Russia for curbs on expression and support of rebels in eastern Ukraine, Europe for its treatment of refugees and migrants.

In its latest annual report covering 160 countries, Amnesty International said 2014 was a “devastating” year for human rights and highlighted problems in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Western Europe, Ukraine, Mexico, Egypt and Hong Kong.

“From Washington to Damascus, from Abuja to Colombo, government leaders have justified horrific human rights violations by talking of the need to keep the country ‘safe,'” the report said.

As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in a recent essay: “Human rights are not just arbitrary restraints on governments. They reflect fundamental values, widely shared and deeply held, imposing limits on the power of governments and essential safeguards for human dignity and autonomy.”

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