Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

9.1: Human Rights

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Human rights are defined by the United Nations as rights inherent to all human beings, whatever nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. The United Nations replaced the League of Nations in 1945, it is tasked to promote international co-operation and to create and maintain international order.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an American icon of the civil rights movement in the 1960s

    Across history, in the many cultures of the world, human rights have varied significantly. With triumphs and setbacks ranging from the American Civil Rights Movement to the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. One of the first notable civil rights leaders was Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, played an intricate role in the formation of India’s Constitution, he campaigned against the discrimination of the Dalits class (AKA"The untouchables"), and for more woman’s labor rights. In America, we see notable civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was the most visible spokesperson of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's or Susan B Anthony, leading the American Equal rights Association campaigning for equal rights for women and other minority groups. These famous leaders only scratch the surface of the history of thousands of leaders and activists fighting the never ending battle of inequality where one group of people are treated significantly worse than another group of people because of a trait that may deem that group of people as lesser. However, cultures bias, whether it be racial, socioeconomic or gender based, has always halted the many social groups of the world from achieving equal human rights. It is in observing these former leaders' triumphs and cultures' failures that it is possible to understand the movement of social progress throughout the globe.[2]


    It would appear that all cultures, have some form of human rights whether written or unwritten. However, what is considered a human right and who benefits from these human rights has varied drastically over time.

    Prior to the 20th century, there were no international written documents that would declare that all people have rights, simply based on their status as human.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

    Before the formation of the United Nations, many different countries had documents outlining the rights of its citizens, such as; the US Constitution, the English Bill of Rights, and many others. A major problem arises when one realizes that these documents do not assure rights for all people, often omitting women, people of color, and/or people of a certain religion or social class. The League of Nations, the first world intergovernmental organization whose goal was maintaining world peace, tried to create protections for minority groups, but the League ultimately failed, and so these protections never came to pass.[3] After the events of World War II, many countries became committed to the idea of universal human rights. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for four essential freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. One of the oldest known human rights activism groups is called the Amnesty International group. This group was founded in 1961 in London.

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines that all people are born free and equal, and that they have certain rights including the right to life and security, the right to not be enslaved or tortured, and the right to be recognized as a person before the law, among others. Originally written by the United Nations -an intergovernmental organization that replaced the League of Nations in 1945. The United Nations was tasked to promote international co-operation and to create and maintain international order. Representatives from all over with different legal and cultural backgrounds wrote the Declaration, and it was drafted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The Declaration supports that all people have rights, no matter their race, gender, religion, or social status. Some of these rights guaranteed by the UDHR come into conflict with the traditions of some cultures, and has been the cause of certain conflicts (rights of a culture vs. right of the individual) and many of the articles in the document are vague, and leave room for interpretation, but it is this document that declares that there are some rights that are inherent in all people. Individual counties have created additional documents that further dedicate themselves to the ideals of the UDHR while also granting their citizens additional rights.[3] However, some question and fight these rights since they were written with only with western society in mind. They do not take into account how other cultures may see rights or what needs other cultures prioritize.

    Civil and Political Rights

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Parties and signatories to the ICCPR

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a document representing the foundation of established human rights laws. The document, a set of civil principles, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This document was written in response to the travesties of WWII and the Holocaust as an agreement between the UN Nations to hold higher standards of human rights. This document was a commitment by countries to abide by certain humane regulations regarding political, social, economic, and cultural rights of humans inside of a system.

    The Civil and political rights form the original and main part of international human rights. It is a class of rights that restrict the higher power of authority, such as the government, social organizations and private individuals from discriminating or repressing the freedom an individual. Civil rights ensure protection from discrimination and protect the physical and mental well-being of an individual such as privacy and freedom of speech. Political rights include fairness in law, fair trial and other civil rights in the judicial system.

    The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a United Nations treaty based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created in 1966 and entered into force on 23 March 1976.

    The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is monitored by the Human Rights Committee (a separate body to the Human Rights Council which replaced the Commission on Human Rights under the UN Charter in 2006) with permanent standing, to consider periodic reports submitted by member States on their compliance or following with the treaty. Members of the Human Rights Committee are elected by member states, but do not represent any State. The Covenant contains two Optional Protocols. The first optional protocol creates an individual complaints mechanism whereby individuals in member States can submit complaints, known as communications, to be reviewed by the Human Rights Committee. Its rulings under the first optional protocol have created the most complex jurisprudence or the theory or philosophy of law in the UN international human rights law system. The second optional protocol abolishes the death penalty; however, countries were permitted to make a reservation allowing for use of death penalty for the most serious crimes of a military nature, committed during wartime.[4]

    Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): States parties and signatories to the ICESCR

         states parties

         non-state parties signatories

         non-state parties non-signatories

    The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966, and in force from January 3, 1976. It commits its parties to granting economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) to individuals; including labor rights, rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living. The United Nations replaced the League of Nations in 1945, as of December 2008, the Covenant had 159 parties.[5] A further seven countries have signed, but have yet to ratify the Covenant.

    The United Nation's many attempts to create peace in Northern Uganda example of the ICESCR's efforts to advance human rights. As discussed in Sverker Finnstrom's article in American Ethnologist, The Acholi peoples of Uganda, whose rights have been at stake for over two decades, have continued to make steps toward a more stable economy despite having been largely displaced into refuge camps . The UN in its attempt to regain this cultures natural human rights programs are working to put the rebel forces out .[6]

    The ICESCR is part of the International Bill of Human Rights, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), including the latter's first and second Optional Protocols.[7]

    Labor Rights

    As more nations participate in global trade, labor rights issues continue to arise. In the interest of globalization, companies continue to move their production to underdeveloped countries with less regulation and cheaper labor. Globalization can be defined as the process through which businesses or other organizations develop international influence or operate on an international scale. Exploitation of laborers can include long hours, unsafe working conditions, lack of sick leave, vacation, or compensation. Compensations usually refers to money, awarded to someone as a recompense for loss, injury or suffering. This all renders the chances of upward mobility non-existent. Manufacturing industries of apparel and agriculture are some of the industries with the worst of these problems.

    The International Labor Organization (ILO) is a UN agency founded in the early 20th century. It is dedicated to tackling international labor issues and is composed of 187 member states of the UN. The organization received the 1969 Noble Peace Prize.[8]

    The ILO defines decent working conditions as:[9]

    • Need for daily, weekly and perhaps annual limits on working hours
    • Importance of keeping overtime acceptable, limiting the number of additional hours and providing compensation
    • Right to regular and uninterrupted weekly rest
    • Right to paid annual leave
    • Need to keep night-time work acceptable and warranting special protection
    • Importance of enterprises’ needs in respect of flexible working-time arrangements
    • Right to collective bargaining and the full and genuine consultation of employers’ and workers’ representatives on working time regulation
    • Need for an effective labor inspection system or other enforcement measures to prevent and punish abusive practices

    An example of a labor rights may be portrayed in within the apparel industry. Violations of worker’s rights in the apparel industry typically manifest in developing nations, where labor regulation is not enforced or hasn't caught up with the developed world. The popular term “sweatshop”, is used to label factories/workplaces that routinely exploit and under-provide for the employees. Because of the higher profit margins to be made with production in developing countries, labor is moved abroad, and fiercely competed for. This effectively causes what is known as “race to the bottom” practices. Though awareness of these practices has become more publicized, the demand for inexpensive goods has only risen with time.[10]

    Reproductive Rights

    Reproductive rights were first established as a subset of human rights at the United Nation's 1968 International Conference on Human Rights.[3] The sixteenth article of the resulting Proclamation of Teheran states, "Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children."[4][5] Reproduction rights revolve around the decision of an individual to reproduce and maintain reproductive health. This includes the right to plan a family, terminate a pregnancy, use contraceptives, receive sex education in public schools, and gain access to reproductive health services [1]. As reproduction rights are more clearly defined later in this section, the main question to be asked is: to what extent should women have control, or rights, over their reproductive systems?

    Pro-life and Pro-choice

    Most people when asked whether they are pro-life or pro-choice supporters could give an answer that's a mixture of both because the topic itself is very complex. If someone considers themselves to be pro-life, that does not automatically mean that they are anti-choice (and vice versa). Pro-choice supporters support the movement or idea that women have the right to choose whether or not they will bring a child into the world. Pro-choice gives the opportunity for people to have a safe abortion. It allows them to make their own "choice". Abortions were originally illegal until the late 1960's and early 1970's due to repealing the laws within some states. Pro-life, on the other hand, is usually categorized as not being in favor of abortions because they violate the babies rights. For some it goes as far as to wanting abortions to be illegal in the United States again. The main reason behind this is that babies in the womb are still considered to be humans, and it is illegal to kill another human being. This is where both men and women's perspectives are considered because it becomes a conversation about killing another human, not just about a woman and if she is having a baby or not. However many pro-choice supporters counter this and would argue that if a woman does not have the financial stability, health care, support, etc. ,then it is her right to a healthy and safe abortion. Overall, this topic is still an issue that the United States is facing today and perhaps one way to solving it is an understanding of both perspectives before preconceived judgment makes the decision first.

    Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

    On 16 November 1990, a United States federal law passed that requires federal agencies and institutions to return Native American human remains and cultural items to their respective peoples. This federal law was called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA. Some of these cultural artifacts include funeral objects, religious objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. Patrimony is property that is passed down from father to son, or from one male ancestor to another. These federal agencies and institutions receive funding in order to do this. With this act, people are entitled to their culture both during life and after death. A NAGPRA outline allows us to know who should gain ownership of the remains if it is unclear to who it should belong to.

    NAGPRA and Ownership

    1. Ownership resides with any lineal descendants
    2. If no lineal descendants, ownership resides with (in order):
      1. The tribe on whose land the remains or objects were found or
      2. The tribe who has closest cultural affiliation with the remains and who stakes a claim or if undetermined
      3. The tribe who is recognized as aboriginally occupying land that was determined to be traditionally theirs by the Indian Claims Commission, unless
      4. Preponderance of the evidence shows that another tribe has a stronger cultural affiliation that the tribe id’ed by the ICC

    Rights versus Culture, Rights to Culture

    Rights to Culture ensure that an individual, or a group of individuals, all have the rights to participate in, and enjoy their culture. This includes aspects such as the right to take part in cultural life, a guarantee of cultural conservation but still development, and protection from harmful cultural practices.

    In discussing rights and culture there are two assumptions that people often make:

    1. Cultures are unchanging.
    2. In a given society there is only one acceptable culture that everyone must abide by.

    These assumptions may cause problems within a group of people in multiple ways. When new rights are accepted in a culture that is normally unchanging, that new right may create conflict within the culture due to many of the varying viewpoints within the group. For example the issue of unveiling Muslim women so that they would no longer be oppressed. While Westerners are using the etic point of view without understanding fully what the veil means to the Muslim women as part of their culture and their religion. This is where rights and culture may not agree. Culture and human rights sometimes disagree, and new human rights may contradict accepted norms within a culture.

    This page titled 9.1: Human Rights is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Wikibooks - Cultural Anthropology (Wikibooks) .

    • Was this article helpful?