WHAT ARE HUMAN RIGHTS? - A SHORT INTRODUCTION

As you probably already know, I often mention human rights when I talk about sustainability and conscious consumption. I often get questions about this; why I choose to highlight this aspect of sustainability, but also what human rights actually are and how they work. My experience is that we do not talk enough about human rights and that the level of knowledge about human rights and human rights issues is quite low. The reason for this, I believe, is that human rights are taken for granted in Sweden. They are a part of our daily life and we see them as given. Human rights, however, are not always respected - and it is often in these situations we talk about them.

I thought I would dedicate this post to the subject of human rights, even though it only will be a kind of introduction. Human rights consist of so many aspects that it will be impossible for me to cover them all (I do not even know them all!). Human rights play an extremely important role when talking about sustainability though and since this is what I am most passionate about, it is no wonder that I often talk about them.

What are human rights?

So, what are human rights? I would like to divide the answer into two sections;

  • As international and national law

  • As a philosophical concept

My experience is that it is common for people to think that human rights are a part of international law, and that that is it. It is understandable that this is the case, since we often take human rights for granted and that they most often are respected in a state like Sweden. However, this is not always the case. Human rights violations happen even in Sweden, even though we are a part of both an international (UN) and a regional (European) system for the protection of human rights.

When we talk about human rights as international law, we refer to the different systems for the protection of human rights, with their institutions and juridical documents. The most commonly knows human rights document must be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was the first human rights document within the United Nation. These documents list the different rights which are called human rights. States can sign and ratify these documents, but it is not always mandatory. If we take a look at the European protection of human rights, and the main document called the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), this document must be ratified if a state has signed it. ECHR is thus a part of the national law in many states, such as Sweden.

When I state that human rights can be viewed as a philosophical concept, I mean the way in which we try to motivate human rights; why we should have them and what should be considered to be a human right. This is not obvious. I often feel as if this is the part where most people struggle when I tell them about the subject I am studying - it is hard to grasp that all humans have the same human rights, despite who they are and what they might have done. Human rights are universal though, everyone has them, and this is an extremely important aspect of the concept of human rights.

In short, human rights are rights that protect the human dignity. All humans have human rights, just by being human. No matter who you are, you have these rights. Some of the rights are absolute, while some are relative. For example; the right to life is an absolute right while freedom of religion is a relative right. When reading a human rights document, you will be able to see if the right is absolute or relative, because if the right is relative the article will mention if the right has any limitations. One of the reasons that some rights are relative is because they might collide with other rights. As you might understand, human rights can be a quite difficult subject - but very interesting and extremely important.