Spotlights on Health and Rights

Key topics in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health

Human Rights

What are Human Rights?

One of the challenges to studying human rights is that rights language is used, sometimes very casually, in many contexts in everyday life. People speak, for example, of having a right to have a seat on the subway or a right to do illegal things as long as they don't hurt anyone. For the purpose of this module and for most purposes in the area of health and human rights, human rights refers mainly to rights that are articulated in treaties that are global in scope, managed under the stewardship of the United Nations, as well as similar regional treaties overseen by inter-governmental bodies in the Americas, Europe and Africa.

Human rights are the rights one has simply by virtue of being a human being. They are legally guaranteed and cannot be waived or taken away. Other qualities of human rights:

  • They are universal in that they are enjoyed by all human beings without exception, across all borders and cultures.
  • They are indivisible in that a person does not have some rights but not others.
  • Related to their indivisibility, they are interdependent, or, as it is sometimes said, people who have adequate food and shelter still do not enjoy their rights if they cannot vote or express themselves freely (and vice versa).

Human rights may be thought of as a system of claims made by individuals on governments - claims that are associated with government obligations that are encoded in law.