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what are human rights?

Human rights viol­a­tions and cor­rup­tion are wide­spread on all levels in all Euras­i­an coun­tries. Not only the oppon­ents of regimes, crit­ics, human rights defend­ers, journ­al­ists, but also ordin­ary cit­izens who try to fight viol­a­tions of their rights and res­ist cor­rup­tion face bru­tal repris­als and sup­pres­sion by the author­it­ies, using the entire repress­ive state appar­at­us, includ­ing law enforce­ment agen­cies, spe­cial ser­vices and courts.

The defin­i­tion of “Human Rights” is com­prised of two sep­ar­ate words “Human” and “Rights”. A “human” — “a man, woman, or child”. The “Rights” — “power, priv­ilege, or con­di­tion of exist­ence to which one has a nat­ur­al claim of enjoy­ment or possession”.

There are many dif­fer­ent rights that belong to spe­cif­ic groups of people such as uni­on rights, work­ers’ rights, and oth­ers. To enjoy human rights there is no need to belong to any group. These are the rights every­one is entitled to simply because they are humans regard­less of nation­al­ity, place of res­id­ence, gender, eth­ni­city, reli­gion, lan­guage or any oth­er dis­tinc­tion. In oth­er words, these rights are uni­ver­sal and reflect how every­one nat­ur­ally expects and deserves to be treated by others.

Human Rights are uni­ver­sally pro­tec­ted in all coun­tries, but they are inter­na­tion­ally pro­tec­ted via inter­na­tion­al law. After the WWII, in 1948 the United Nation­al Gen­er­al Assembly adop­ted the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights, anchor­ing them in inter­na­tion­al policy. In Europe there is also the European Con­ven­tion on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights to pro­tect these rights.

Ancient sources and evolution of human rights

Ideas and con­cepts of human rights and justice did not just ori­gin­ate in a single loc­a­tion of the world, at a single time. Rather, they emerged from cen­tur­ies of melt­ing pot of dif­fer­ent cul­tures, his­tor­ic­al con­text, reli­gious beliefs, sec­u­lar tra­di­tions and philo­sophies. Some of these con­cepts were adop­ted as nat­ur­al rights and some erup­ted as a reac­tion against viol­ence, severe abuse and ter­rible atro­cit­ies. For example, The Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human rights, adop­ted by the United Nations Gen­er­al Assembly in 1948 came as a res­ult of World War II, par­tic­u­larly the Holo­caust with nations around the world vow­ing to nev­er again allow such atro­cit­ies to happen.

Arche­olo­gists have found many ancient leg­al texts, includ­ing the Sumer Code of Ur-Nam­mu (c 2100–2050 BCE), the Lip­it-Ishtar codex (c 1930 BCE), and the Laws of Esh­nunna (c 1770 BCE) serving as evid­ence of ancient civil­iz­a­tions strive towards estab­lish­ing leg­al order. The ancient record recog­nized as the world’s first human rights charter is the “Edict of Cyr­us” writ­ten in an Akka­di­an cunei­form script on a baked clay cyl­in­der in the name of the Achae­men­id king Cyr­us the Great, after his con­quest of Babylon in 539 B.C. As a new ruler Cyr­us freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own reli­gion, and estab­lished racial equal­ity. A rep­lica of the Cyr­us cyl­in­der was presen­ted to the United Nations by the gov­ern­ment of Iran in 1971.

Anoth­er known remark­able con­tri­bu­tion to evol­u­tion of human rights came from King Ham­mur­abi who around 1754 B.C. issued a code of 282 laws, that along oth­er reg­u­la­tions out­lined the prin­ciple that the “the weak shall not be harmed by the strong”. As con­tro­ver­sial as it is, due to “an eye for an eye” nature, the codex demon­strates the earli­est attempts to set forth the concept of a court of law, the right to a fair tri­al and the right to present evid­ence before the judges, the right to pre­sump­tion of inno­cence until proven guilty, the right to free­dom of speech. Extraordin­ary for his time Ham­mur­abi set forth the most import­ant human rights prin­ciple that every­one is equal before the law, even the king himself.

Human Rights in modern days

Through­out the his­tory of man­kind, the con­cepts of human rights sprouted in ancient India, Greece, Rome, and even in the empire of the bru­tal Asi­an con­quer­or Genghis Khan. Finally, after cen­tur­ies of revolts, revolu­tions and atro­cious wars human­ity came togeth­er and formed a United Nations “…to reaf­firm faith in fun­da­ment­al human rights, in the dig­nity and worth of the human per­son, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”. In 1948 nations finally agreed on a set of 30 human rights that are known today as “The Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights” the first four Art­icles of which are par­al­lel to the pro­vi­sions of the 539 B.C. “Edict of Cyrus”.

In mod­ern days, the human rights (pos­it­ive rights) and freedoms (neg­at­ive rights) are norms that lim­it the power of the major­ity pro­tect­ing the minor­ity in a demo­crat­ic soci­ety. Human rights and freedoms are leg­al prin­ciples that pro­tect the dig­nity and free­dom of each indi­vidu­al and determ­ine the rela­tion­ship between an indi­vidu­al and the gov­ern­ment. Fun­da­ment­al rights determ­ine the basis of the leg­al status of an indi­vidu­al, as pre­scribed in the Con­sti­tu­tion of each demo­crat­ic state and in the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights which is a source for a vari­ety of human rights doc­u­ments. Basic prin­ciples of human rights and freedoms are: a) they are uni­ver­sal and inali­en­able, b) integ­ral, inter­con­nec­ted and inter­de­pend­ent, c) non-discriminatory.

To become a real­ity these human rights must be imple­men­ted on nation­al levels. With uni­ver­sal rights to adequate hous­ing, food, health­care, edu­ca­tion, to freely speak their mind, peace­fully protest and prac­tice their faith, there are estim­ated 1.6 bil­lion people or 20% of the worlds’ pop­u­la­tion lack­ing adequate hous­ing, 822 mil­lion people starving and star­va­tion claim­ing a child’s life every 3 seconds, thou­sands of crit­ics, act­iv­ists and journ­al­ists around the world killed, imprisoned or oth­er­wise per­se­cuted, over a bil­lion people unable to read, people of faith sub­jec­ted to dis­crim­in­a­tion, per­se­cu­tion and gen­o­cide, 70.8 mil­lion people for­cibly dis­placed, includ­ing 25.9 mil­lion refugees, sur­pass­ing the post-World War II num­bers. With slavery abol­ished for dec­ades, there are 40.3 mil­lion people enslaved today, 5 times more than in 18th cen­tury. These rights and pro­tec­tions must be imple­men­ted by domest­ic author­it­ies on nation­al levels which are often unwill­ing or unable to respect and guar­an­tee these rights. Human rights should start at home. As Elean­or Roosevelt said: “Where, after all, do uni­ver­sal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they can­not be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the indi­vidu­al per­son; the neigh­bor­hood he lives in; the school or col­lege he attends; the fact­ory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seek equal justice, equal oppor­tun­ity, equal dig­nity without dis­crim­in­a­tion. Unless these rights have mean­ing there, they have little mean­ing any­where. Without con­cer­ted cit­izen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for pro­gress in the lar­ger world.”