Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This wording expresses a view on the human being that, after the Second World War, the founding states of the United Nations wished to protect and promote. They wanted that the violations of human dignity that took place during the war, the mass murders and the Holocaust, be impossible in the future. Therefore, they formulated an international legal protection of the human being and adopted the Universal Declaration in 1948. It is meant to protect us all from violations of our freedom and our dignity.
Since then, the United Nations and various regional organisations, such as the African Union, the Council of Europe and the Organisation of American States, have adopted legally binding documents with more detailed expressions of human rights, all emanating from this fundamental idea of freedom and human dignity. In addition to these documents, the organisations have established international or regional monitoring mechanisms observing state compliance with the human rights treaties. In 1993, 171 states agreed that all human rights are for all and that human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.
What this means is that states, which have adopted international treaties on human rights, oblige themselves to respect, promote and fulfil the human rights found in these documents. States must refrain from action that limits or violates the rights of the individual. They must also protect human beings from the violations of their dignity from other actors than the state, and states must allocate and distribute resources in such a way that individuals can enjoy and claim their rights.
The principles of universality and indivisibility of rights means, among other things, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is valid everywhere in the world and that no state can refrain from fulfilling the rights therein for cultural, traditional or religious reasons. The interdependence and interrelatedness of human rights refer to rights being part of a system, and if one right is violated other rights are in danger, or actually, being violated as well.
For example, if the right to education is violated, then the right to political participation may be as well. One may have difficulties in making an informed and enlightened choice in an election if one cannot read statements from the political candidates. Or if the right to being a person before the law is violated then the right to access to justice may be as well. If one has no legal standing before the law, i.e. no identification card, registration number or passport, one cannot go to court and make a claim of any kind.
Lately, international organisations, researchers and development practitioners have made efforts to formulate a “human rights based approach” to development cooperation and also to the implementation of human rights within states, within the state organisation. This approach entails a view that human rights can only be fulfilled if individuals having rights are also actively participating in the decision-making processes. For example, the quality of the rights to education can only be guaranteed if children and legal guardians are involved in the planning and decision-making of the educational institutions. And teachers must have rights and know about human rights so that rights can be integrated into the entire educational system.
The human rights based approach grasps the universality, indivisibility and the interdependence and interrelatedness of human rights and aims at ensuring that rights are guaranteed, accessible, quality assured and integrated into the legal system of the state or into the development cooperation project.