FOUNDATION: Unit II. What Are Human Rights and Where Do They Come From? 2 of 15


It’s generally agreed that the term "human rights" refers to rights that individuals have simply because they are human beings. If an individual has a right to something (for example, free speech, political participation, or even adequate food and shelter), this means that he or she should enjoy this entitlement and should be guaranteed it by law.

If one believes in human rights, then individual human beings are the rights holders, and government and society are the duty bearers. Government and society have a duty to not infringe upon a person’s rights. In fact, government is charged with primary responsibility for ensuring that these rights are securely enjoyed by all people equally.

Governments respect human rights by enacting laws that make it illegal for the government itself or others in society to violate an individual’s rights. A government that respects human rights must also abstain from violating people’s rights. For example, a government that respects human rights:
  • must not torture people,
  • must allow people to vote, and
  • must provide for legal processes that allow individuals access to the courts so that they may sue the government or others if they feel their rights have been violated.

If governments fail to respect human rights, other authorities (such as the United Nations [UN] or a regional organization) may seek to protect a person’s rights.

What makes a human right inherent, and what then is necessary to ensure such rights are not violated? If a right is inherent, how can it ever be denied?

Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Switzerland
United Nations