What Are Human Rights?

What Are Human Rights?

Human rights are rights and freedoms, which stem from the idea of human dignity and that every person globally is entitled to a certain minimum level of rights – human rights – simply because of being human. 

Legally, states, the duty-bearers, have an obligation towards individuals, the rights-holders, to ensure the equal fulfilment of human rights without any discrimination based on for instance nationality, sex, religion, national or ethnic origin, language, sexual orientation or place of residence.  

There are various different human rights, and the rights and freedoms are often divided into two categoriescivil and political rights and social, economic and cultural rights. 

Civil and political rights relate to issues such as the freedom of expression, religion and assembly, as well as the right to life and freedom from torture and ill-treatment, whereas social, economic and cultural rights, include, for instance, the right to health, work and education. All human rights are however linked – indivisible and interdependent – since the fulfilment of any one right depends on the fulfilment of the others.  

There are also rights that focus on specific groups of people, such as children’s rights and women’s rights.

Watch our animated video (4 min.):

What are human rights to you?

“Human rights are entitlements that every person has just because of being human. You deserve food, you deserve clothes, and you deserve a house – those are examples of things that should be human rights.”Mumbi Maina-Murimi, Programme Associate

“People need human rights in order to enjoy a dignified life. Human rights are universal but also acknowledge differences among people.” Sri Aryani, Programme Officer

Human Rights Law

In the legal sense, having human rights means that a state has the corresponding obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the rights in question. A state is not only obligated not to violate human rights (respect), but must also ensure that no-one else violates the rights (protect), and take positive action to ensure that the rights can be enjoyed (fulfil).

Where a state violates its human rights obligations, victims can seek justice by turning to national, regional or international actors and mechanisms.

While it is up to states themselves to decide which international and regional human rights instruments to ratify and become bound by, the system of international law also consists of international customary law and general principles of law, which bind all states equally. Particularly the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see more below) – one of the founding documents of international human rights law – is often considered to be binding on all states.

International human rights law

At the international level, there are various binding human rights instruments, which impose obligations on states. The most important binding international instruments include the United Nations (UN) core human rights treaties (and their protocols) such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Social Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

There are also a number of treaties dealing with specific groups of rights bearers, whose rights have traditionally been poorly protected, such as women, children and persons with disabilities, as well as conventions dealing with specific serious human rights violations, including for instance genocide, racial discrimination and torture. There are also binding instruments by other international actors such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Bank, which address certain human rights issues.

States’ compliance with the core UN human rights conventions is monitored by their respective Committees. Individuals who claim that their human rights have been violated can appeal to (one of) the Committees to have their allegations tried. The Committees consist of individual human rights experts, who provide guidance on the interpretation of their respective treaties, monitor state actions and may decide on individual cases of alleged human rights violations.

Regional human rights law

At the regional level, there are various human rights instruments that cover different geographical areas – such as the the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and the American Declarationon the Rights and Duties of Man, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.

The regional instruments are monitored by Courts and Commissions, which can be highly influential in relation to the development and protection of human rights in their respective regions.

National human rights law

Nationally, human rights are generally enshrined in constitutions as well as other binding national laws. Once bound by human rights obligations, a state is bound to act in accordance with its obligations in all its actions. The state is therefore both the duty-bearer and primary guarantor of human rights for everyone within the state’s power.

Also the local and sub-national level authorities are of great importance to ensuring the fulfilment of human rights in practice.

Since human rights are in the absolute majority of cases ensured and dealt with at the state level, national courts are the first line of defense for human rights. Indeed, in most cases an individual must first exhaust all local remedies – that is, use all available national justice mechanisms to have an alleged human rights violation tried – before being able to turn to regional or international mechanisms, which act as an international safety net.

Although the fulfilment of human rights is the legal responsibility of the state, many other actors, at local, national, regional and international levels, play an important role in ensuring human rights fulfilment. Such actors include for instance civil society organizations, academia, grass roots movements, individuals, international organizations, private companies and various other networks and organizations.

How We Work with Human Rights

We combine evidence-based research with direct engagement to bring about human rights change. We see change as a long-term process, requiring a systematic and persistent approach built on trust and cooperation. We have offices, programmes and convening power covering more than 60 countries. As a network-based organisation, we work through strong partnerships with a variety of actors.


“Human rights are the fundamental right of every person to enjoy the basic building blocks of a dignified and good life. Since human rights belong to everyone equally, the human rights system is only as strong as the rights of those who are most left behind and marginalized in society. We therefore work to identify existing gaps and problems and to support stronger human rights development for a more just and equal world for everyone. My own work currently focuses on research and analysis of the potential human rights impacts of states’ legal and policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Elina Hammarström, Research Assistant and Alumni from the International Human Rights Law Master’s Programme

Read more about our different working methods:

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Multi-Disciplinary Research
Higher Education
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                                 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights


 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Illustrated by Raoul Wallenberg Institute

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Download our UDHR Illustrated and print for easy access.