Paralegal Guide: Human Rights
Human rights are the basic privileges to which every person is entitled, regardless of gender, nationality, orientation, or other form of status. The acknowledgement of human rights serves as a basic moral code for nations. However, since not every country treats its citizens with equality, several organizations crusade for the worldwide adoption of human rights policies. This guide to human rights points out some major issues that human rights advocates fight for, as well as some large-scale human rights organizations and significant movements.
Human Rights Philosophy
Following the atrocities of WWII, the United Nations formed with a goal of preventing similar tragedies in the future. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that was officially adopted in December1948 with the aim of providing a framework to ensure certain basic human rights to which every person should be privy. The preamble states the necessity of “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
The UDHR contains 30 articles, which address issues such as the condemnation of slavery and torture, as well as the acknowledgement of the equality of all men and women. The UN considers the following to be thematic issues especially in need of attention:
- Campaign to End Violence Against Women
- Violence Against Children
- UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict
- Indigenous People
- Children and Armed Conflict
- The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme
- Lessons From Rwanda
- Disability and the UN
- Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights Issues
- Human Trafficking
Many worldwide organizations work for human rights. Such groups try to change laws and influence governmental policy by making evident the widespread opposition against human rights abuses. These organizations employ many methods, such as:
Education. They cooperate with student groups and coordinate community human rights education programs to keep the public informed of the atrocities happening around the world.
Raising Awareness. Some groups use the principle of strength in numbers to hold demonstrations, protests, and vigils for the sake of victims. Awareness-raising concerts and speeches help spread the message, as well. Sometimes they lobby for changes in public policy or encourage their own governments to step in and help powerless people who are being abused in other nations. They also make targeted appeals to specific perpetrators of abuse.
Taking Action. Letter writing campaigns, publication of research findings (see Human Rights Quarterly), and sponsored community events are all ways that human rights organizations attempt to get the public involved with fighting against abuse. In recent years, online outreach like email petitions and web discussion forums have expanded the audience of these organizations.
The United Nations is an international agency whose aim is to facilitate dialogue between its 193 member-states in hopes of obtaining cooperation in the areas of international law and security, economic development, social progress, world peace, and human rights. A number of smaller organizations and committees, such as the UN Human Rights Council, attempt to carry out those stated goals.
The UN formed in 1945. After the world witnessed massive violations of human rights, including attempted genocide, during WWII, one of the central aims of the organization was to ensure that such an atrocity never happened again. As such, the UN charter promotes “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights” in all nations. Furthermore, the UN is responsible for creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as referenced above.
Amnesty International is one of the best known organizations that works to advance human rights around the world. Founded in 1961, the organization now has offices in more than 80 countries. More than 3 million members and advocates support the AI mission to ensure basic human rights for all people. It does not have any particular political, religious, or government affiliation. 2011 is AI’s 50th anniversary. The organization has identified specific areas of focus including elimination of the death penalty, freedom of expression, reproductive rights, international justice and stopping corporate abuse.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is an independent humanitarian organization based out of Geneva, Switzerland. It formed in 1949 to respond to emergencies and national disasters as well as to provide assistance to victims of violent situations.
Human Rights Advocates and Documents
Each culture struggles with different aspects of human rights. The following represents a sampling of some significant players in the development of human rights. See Ongoing Struggle for Human Rights, a timeline of important events in human rights.
Precursors to today’s UDHR are the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791), and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791).
- In 1833, Great Britain ended slavery in the British Empire with the Abolition Act. By 1841, several other nations including France and Austria signed the Treaty of London to outlaw slavery. In 1863, the U.S. declares all former slaves to be free under the Emancipation Proclamation.
- In 1919, nations attempt to place Kaiser Wilhelm II on trial for serious violation of human rights perpetrated during WWI. He escapes, but the Treaty of Versailles stresses the rights of all people for the first time.
- In 1920, American women are granted the right to vote. Meanwhile, the International Labor Organization advocates for human rights associated with labor laws.
- The UN is established in 1945 following the events of the Holocaust during WWII. The UDHR is adopted in 1948. In 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights is held.
- The U.S. Civil Rights movement achieved several victories, at length granting equality to African Americans with the end of segregation in schools (1954) and the right to vote (1957).
- The first World Conference on Human Rights is held in Tehran in 1968. In 1975, the UN Declaration on Rights of Disabled Persons is adopted.
- In 1984, the UN adopts the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
- 1989 spotlights abuse in China as authorities massacre student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
- The first international trials for war crimes since the Nuremberg Trials are held in 1993 to prosecute crimes against humanity in the Former Yugoslavia.
- The World Conference on Women declares “Women’s rights are human rights” in Beijing in 1995.
- In 2004, the state of Massachusetts becomes the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage.