Human Rights Violations In Today’s Societies

I have written several articles on postings related to Reform in America. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional areas rife for reform.

What Are Basic Human Rights?

Human beings need certain things to physically survive, like food, water, and shelter. Beyond that, however, we also deserve to be treated with respect and have the freedom to do the things we want to do (as long as it doesn’t harm others). Many people have understood these necessities throughout history, but they haven’t always been protected or written into law.

That all changed in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is a document declaring the basic human rights—also referred to as fundamental human rights—of all individuals across the world. So what are some of the basic human rights that the Declaration contains? This document outlines 30 rights and freedos that every human should emjoy, including the right to be free from torture, the right to feedom of expression and other civil and political rights. Many of these inalienable rights and freedoms continue to be under threat today, as democracy retreats and authoritarian regimes take their place.

What Are Some Basic Human Rights?

The Preamble of the UN’s Declaration specifies that the basic rights of humans should be protected by the rule of law, and that all members of the human family are granted these equal and inalienable rights, which form the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. Much like the United States Declaration of Independence and similar documents throughout history, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights universally protects fundamental human rights and lays down the obligation of governments to act when rights are violated. Here is a list of basic human rights that are included within the UDHR:

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. 
  • Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
  • All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

These are only some of the basic human rights that are covered in the Declaration. As time has passed and the global landscape has shifted, more rights have been added to help protect individuals and their rights more completely.

While basic human needs like food, water, and shelter aren’t specifically mentioned in the UDHR, they fall under some of the different articles in the document since they are necessary to live (e.g., the right to life). As our world continues to advance, grow, and evolve, some of the things we need change as well. That’s why for many people, access to electricity is now a basic human right and efforts should be made to expand it to everyone in the world.

What Are Human Rights: Definition, Types, Issues & Violations

​What are the universal human rights? What human rights do you have? Here’s what you should know about your rights, and why they are important.

The idea that every person, regardless of their beliefs, background or any other factor, is entitled to a set of inalienable rights – ‘human rights’ – is actually somewhat new. Although the concept of human rights can be found throughout history, from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi to religious texts such as the Bible and the Quran, it was not until the middle of the 20th century that human rights became a global concept. And that’s because the atrocities of the Second World War brought into focus the need to establish certain rights that all humans share.

What are human rights: definition

There are countless definitions of human rights, from the straight-forward dictionary definition of “a right which is believed to belong to every person” to the more elaborate definition from the United Nations as “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.” The various definitions share one thing in common: human rights belong to everyone.

But perhaps it’s best to think of human rights as the tools we need to build the lives we want to live and the communities we want to live in. The concept of human rights is relatively new, but it seeks to answer an age-old question: how can we make sure that those who have power in society use it for the good of the group?

There are some examples of laws being made to safeguard people from abuse and give everyone more of a say in society over time, like humanitarian law, the abolition of slavery and the protection of minorities after WWI. But it’s not until after WWII that we get the first proper articulation of human rights.

What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first ‘worldwide’ catalogue of human rights. It wasn’t intended to be binding. But over time it has acquired the status of customary international law, and all the rights it contains have since been put into legally binding treaties, to which most governments have committed themselves.

The UDHR was adopted in 1948, and the date is not random. As mentioned, the answer to the question “why were human rights created?” is, in a modern context, World War II. From the Holocaust to the Nanking Massacre and so many other horrors, this war showed the world the depravity of man, and the need to codify certain rights to protect people from each other.

But the UDHR was able to draw on preceding documents. The American Declaration of the Rights of Man was the first international catalogue of human rights, beating the UDHR by less than a year. (‘American’ refers to Central and South America, not the United States). In turn, the UDHR informed future human rights treaties, like the Arab Charter on Human Rights, passed in 2004.

What are the most important Human Rights documents?

If we measure the importance of a human rights document by its scope – how many rights it recognizes – and its support – how many nations commit to upholding it – there are three: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (both adopted in 1966). All three are United Nations documents, meaning almost all nations of the world have signed on to uphold them, and together they include all human rights. Collectively, the three documents are known as the International Bill of Human Rights.

But there are other documents that are also important – perhaps more so, at least in Europe. Specifically, the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights are legally binding documents that all EU member states must respect. Politically, they are more important than the UN documents because European courts take their enforcement much more seriously. For example, the EU’s Court of Justice hardly pays any attention to UN human rights treaties unless it has nowhere else to go for guidance. Instead it will most often look to the Charter of Fundamental Rights when formulating decisions.

What are the universal human rights? What types of human rights are there?

So, what are our basic human rights? Perhaps the most obvious, or most mentioned, human rights are the right to life, the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of thought. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists a total of 30 basic human rights. Unlike, for example, freedom of speech, the UDHR includes rights that could not have been conceived without underlying advancements, such as the right to democracy or the right to social security.

That said, we can categorize rights into certain types.

-Indivisibility: In recent history, western countries have tended to say that only civil and political rights were really rights, while socialist countries said that only economic and social rights are really rights. In reality, you need them all to live a life of dignity. If you can’t make ends meet, aren’t healthy or educated, then you’re not going to be able to use your other rights effectively. It could mean you’re too ill, too busy working, too poor, or not well enough informed to tell your leaders what you want from them, vote, buy a newspaper or take a court case. And vice-versa, if you don’t have a right to protest or free speech or access to courts or information or elections to vote in, you’re not in a position to choose politicians who will deliver on health care, education, fair pay etc.

-Inalienability: This just means that you can’t ‘trade’ your rights away by consent. You can’t say, ‘I give up my privacy for a free Facebook account’. Ideologically, it cuts into your dignity. Practically, it damages society because others will follow suit and then privacy isn’t really a right any more, which has consequences for democracy and individual sanity.

-Universality: This means that everyone gets the same rights by virtue of being human. Human rights are universal because they’re based on basic human needs and the way societies function. And universality is the cornerstone of human rights law, because it is the very promise of the concept itself: that everyone is born with these rights, no matter what.

Why are human rights important?

Human rights are important for two primary reasons: they protect us; and they allow us to build societies that are safe, prosperous and generally desirable to live in. Human rights give us the power to speak up and share our opinions with everyone else, especially those in power. They protect us from harm or undue burden, and they give us the power to participate, whether through protest or association or voting, to shape the world we live in.

They also give us individual freedom to do the things we want – to practice the religion of our choosing, to be a part of the groups we want to associate with, the freedom to receive an education. And, taken together, all of these things also mean that human rights allow us to hold governments to account. Not just in elections, but when a government commits atrocities against its own or foreign people, human rights laws provide the legal basis to hold them accountable.

Human rights issues: how equal is our world?

This is a tricky issue. In many ways, our world is not a very equal place, and this has little to do with human rights. Still, some people say there are inconsistencies – the United States promotes human rights around the world at the same time as it promotes capitalism, which, as currently constructed, creates a great deal of inequality.

But it is unfair to blame human rights for the world’s inequality. In fact, human rights give people the tools they need to demand more equality. The problem is that they’re not implemented properly. This is even true in the world’s strongest democracies. Having said that, one could point to progress on equality for minorities, as opposed to economic equality, that would not have been possible without human rights.

What is a human rights violation: examples

There are obvious examples of human rights violations that continue even today. The use of torture or other inhumane treatment is a common example. Or the jailing of political opponents simply for holding peaceful protests against their government. Or the persecution of religious or ethnic minorities.

But increasingly common human rights violations occur in fields created by our own advancement. For example, our right to privacy is systematically violated online, whether through data harvesting during election cycles or the daily use of microtargeted political advertising. Our right to privacy and our right to access information may be the most commonly violated human rights in western democracies, and this is because governments have been all too happy to defer to economic interests in cases where human rights violations are not considered overt or grave enough to force action.

How to protect human rights?

A good place to start is by introducing a different way of thinking. Instead of thinking only about how we complain when our rights aren’t implemented, we need to mainstream them into decision-making. How do we get civil servants and politicians thinking about implementing human rights? Most of it is common sense, actually. For the most part, they want to make laws that work well for everyone, and end up applying human rights standards almost by accident. If politicians want to make decisions that are good for everyone, then they’re already a long way along towards implementing human rights. Governments go a step further by creating human rights implementation plans and translating human rights standards into basic guidance for making decisions – for example, don’t forget to consult the people affected by your policy, or don’t forget to make information available to people who can’t read or see.

When things really go wrong, it is of course necessary that people are able to make a complaint. But doing so needs to be as easy as possible. Going to court can be a lengthy, costly process. So having easier access to quasi-judicial complaints systems could be an important step. Some countries have national human rights institutions that can more easily consider and judge human rights cases, which takes the burden off individuals. Non-governmental organizations, like human rights groups, also make it easier for people to defend their human rights.

10 Human Rights Issues Of The Future

The world is going into a new decade. Unfortunately, it’s not been the best few years for human rights. Research like the 2018 Rule of Law index shows threats to human rights exist in ⅔ of the surveyed 113 countries. Since 2016, the index has reported diminishing scores. Many of the human rights issues fuel each other. As one becomes more significant, so do a host of others. Looking into 2021, what are the top 10 human rights issues of the future?

Human trafficking

Human trafficking is growing around the world. According to numbers from the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), there’s been an increasing global trend since 2010. The executive director pointed out that armed groups and terrorists use human trafficking to spread fear. Victims often end up working in the sex trade or other forced labor. Human trafficking isn’t limited to certain countries. Of those trafficked, women and girls make up the majority. As the issue becomes more severe and widespread, the international community needs to ramp up its efforts.

Refugee crises

According to the U.N. chief, the world is dealing with the “highest levels of displacement on record.” Reasons include climate change and armed conflict. Refugees fleeing their homes also experience persecution and discrimination. Other reports suggest the situation will only get worse in the future. What can be done? Providing assistance is expensive. The 2019 Global Humanitarian Overview estimates that the 132 million people displaced by conflicts in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia require over $20 billion. Because climate change and armed conflict aren’t easily resolved, the refugee crises will be of the biggest human rights issues in the future. Learn more about the refugee crises in a free online course.

Worker rights

In Article 23.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have “the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” These rights are threatened around the world in a myriad of ways. Injustices like wage theft, discrimination, and physical endangerment occur all the time. Work systems can make work-life balance difficult, taking a toll on employees’ mental health. In many places, inadequate pay is also an issue. The federal minimum wage in the United States has remained the same since 2009. As we go into a new decade, worker rights will become more significant.

Gender equality

Gender inequality has been a human rights issue for hundreds of years. Even with decades of progress, the World Economic Forum believes it could take the world another century to realize gender equality. It’s a complicated issue because there isn’t just one problem to address. Access to education, political representation, reproductive rights, economic opportunities, and more contribute to gender inequality. Making significant changes and monitoring progress will remain a top human rights in the future. Learn more about Gender equality in a free course.

LGBTQ+ rights

LGBTQ+ rights are not an especially recent human rights issue, but they will evolve in the future. Depending on the country, the state of these rights varies widely. All over the world, definitions are changing and expanding. This makes navigating the issues more challenging and complex for society and the human rights community. In the future, how we approach LGBTQ+ rights and gender identity may change, but standing against discrimination will remain necessary.

Human rights and technology

Looking at the past, innovations spread at a lightning pace. Inventions like the internet impact how we communicate and how ideas develop. Technology also changes our relationship with powerful institutions. Unfortunately, legal protections and structures have not developed at the same speed. The future will include questions about human rights as they apply to data privacy, the definition of hate speech, surveillance and digital security. These issues will trigger the development of organizations dedicated to this area.


Despite seventy years of multilateralism and global leadership from institutions like the UN, nationalism is on the rise. It can be found in countries like the United States, Europe, China, and Turkey. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warns that nationalism threatens rights such as the right to life, food, and health. Vulnerable groups like refugees and the LGBTQ+ community face significant danger under nationalism. In the coming years, the world will have to reckon with this shift.

Attacks on journalists and the spread of misinformation

The concept, definition, and spread of “fake news” will continue to be a major issue for societies around the world. Fake news, defined as misinformation and propaganda, causes divisions and endangers a free press. Journalists face significant obstacles and dangers to their work and lives. 2018 was the worst year on record for journalists according to Reporters Without Borders. With nationalism gaining strength, this trend will continue. Human rights as a whole suffer when truth and access to information are endangered.

Responding to climate change

The climate crisis will only get worse as time goes on. Our current state reflects climate scientists’ worst-case scenarios. How to respond will be one of the world’s most serious questions in the future. In a 2019 report, the UN Conference on Trade and Development stated that the energy industry needs a careful transition. Otherwise, the loss of money from the energy industry could cause destabilization “internally, regionally, and even internationally.” However, a transition is essential for the survival of humanity. How to respond to humanitarian crises caused by climate change will also be a significant human rights issue.

A more effective UN and commitment to human rights

2018 reflected the 12th year of a global decline in political and civil rights. When reports on 2019 come out, they’re likely to echo this disheartening reality. As we enter a new decade, the international community has an opportunity to show a renewed commitment to human rights. Countries need to hold themselves and others accountable while raising awareness of human rights and social justice issues.

Human Rights Under the COVID-19 Pandemic

Background: COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts were abrupt and challenging for most countries with the protracted lockdown straining socioeconomic activities. Marginalized groups and individuals are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of the pandemic such as human rights abuses and violations which can lead to psychological distress. In this review, we focus on mental distress and disturbances that have emanated due to human rights restrictions and violations amidst the pandemic. We underscore how mental health is both directly impacted by the force of pandemic and by prevention and mitigation structures put in place to combat the disease.

Methods: We conducted a review of relevant studies examining human rights violations in COVID-19 response, with a focus on vulnerable populations, and its association with mental health and psychological well-being. We searched PubMed and Embase databases for studies between December 2019 to July 2020. Three reviewers evaluated the eligibility criteria and extracted data.

Results: Twenty-four studies were included in the systematic inquiry reporting on distress due to human rights violations. Unanimously, the studies found vulnerable populations to be at a high risk for mental distress. Limited mobility rights disproportionately harmed psychiatric patients, low-income individuals, and minorities who were at higher risk for self-harm and worsening mental health. Healthcare workers suffered negative mental health consequences due to stigma and lack of personal protective equipment and stigma. Other vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children, and refugees also experienced negative consequences.

Conclusions: This review emphasizes the need to uphold human rights and address long term mental health needs of populations that have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. Countries can embed a proactive psychosocial response to medical management as well as in existing prevention strategies. International human rights guidelines are useful in this direction but an emphasis should be placed on strengthening rights informed psychosocial response with specific strategies to enhance mental health in the long-term. We underscore that various fundamental human rights are interdependent and therefore undermining one leads to a poor impact on the others. We strongly recommend global efforts toward focusing both on minimizing fatalities, protecting human rights, and promoting long term mental well-being.


On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency of international concern in response the global pandemic of the novel Coronavirus disease (SARS-COV-2). To reduce the spread of the virus, countries have implemented urgent emergency health measures. These measures include stay at home orders and the closure of schools which have led people to reorganize their lives and necessitated changes in livelihood and health services.

In responding to public health emergencies, governmental authorities have to navigate the delicate balance between protecting the public’s health and safeguarding their inherent human rights including education, freedom of movement, and access to health care. Measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases are not zero-sum tradeoffs and can decrease fatalities but also increase suffering if human rights are not respected. As such, while being protected from clear public health threats, many people, especially vulnerable populations, may be deprived of their inherent human rights. We are in favor of using science to achieve globally shared objectives, but it is important to consider all sources of evidence in addition to the infectious diseases realm in the contexts of known tradeoffs—between lockdown and freedom to assert social and economic freedom. We recommend nations focus both on minimizing fatalities and protecting human rights. The United Nations (UN) defines human rights as: “…fundamental to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. These rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more such as a safe & clean environment have become important to uphold. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination or threat of any kind”.

Within bioethics, the needs of different populations marked as vulnerable have even more urgent and impactful implications because applying the human rights lens focuses on highlighting and protecting the rights withing vulnerable populations. Vulnerable populations are defined as “groups and communities at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability”. The principle of vulnerability is pertinent in the context of global disasters. It emphasizes ethical discourse on ameliorating the conditions that produce vulnerability, rather than on emergency actions focused on saving lives. Vulnerability is a global phenomenon but in the context of the pandemic it is exacerbated in many societies where inequality and access to basic freedoms is restricted. In lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs) such freedoms can easily be impacted due to existing system challenges and adverse social determinants of health. In High Income Countries (HICs), similar challenges surface during pandemic, and vulnerable groups have also been systematically marginalized.

Mental health is integral, closely related to, and dependent upon the realization of human rights. In the context of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, reports highlight gross undermining of mental health and violations of individual civil liberties and fundamental rights such as mobility rights, access to accurate information, access to proper protection for health workers, right to education, and discrimination against marginalized populations. Human rights protection and mental health needs are not always adequately integrated into emergency response policy and management. The evidence highlights that vulnerable populations, including those living in abusive families, individual with disabilities, children, elderly, domestic caregivers, health care workers (HCWs), and ethnic and marginalized communities, are especially at risk for mental health distress with the psychological needs of these populations not likely to be fulfilled without meaningful legislation and intervention. There have been long standing concerns within the field of mental health that the human rights of psychiatric populations and individuals and communities under psychosocial distress tend to be ignored. From mental health policy perspectives, how human right policies and practices is integrated in emergency response policy and management has not been focused. There are several aspects of vulnerability, disability, coerciveness of treatment and system level oppression that have been key concerns. In this review we focus on rights associated violations and grievances that would potentiate further mental distress and long-term harm to critical subsections of at-risk populations that will be negatively impacted.

Given the current evidence, we believe that it is important to broaden our understanding of what rights violations entail in the context of this global pandemic and learn critical lessons in mitigation and prevention of these abusive and unethical situations and mental distress emanating from these. As the first step to inform global human rights policy and guidelines, and practices for better managing a global pandemic, it is important to understand and summarize current knowledge and practices. The focus of this review therefore is to collate evidence on human rights abuses and violations and resultant mental and behavioral health outcomes of different populations, especially those known to be at high risk or have greater vulnerabilities warranting additional mitigation, prevention, and treatment approaches during COVID-19 (13). The two specific objectives are:

1) Scoping of prominent rights-based issues with a focus on basic human rights violations during the COVID-19 pandemic and its association with mental and behavioral health of populations. In this regard, people from different ages, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, status (i.e., orphans or refugees), profession, or religion, will be included.

2) Appraisal of binding agreements and global or national policies that enforce human rights during emergencies and developed for this pandemic that are designed to strengthen human rights and well-being of vulnerable populations.


A rapid literature review was conducted using published data sources on human rights violations and resulting psychological impact on vulnerable populations during COVID-19. For this review, we used the following working definition of rapid review “…a type of knowledge synthesis in which components of the systematic review process are simplified or omitted to produce information in a short period of time”.

Literature that focused on human rights and related violations, health stigma and discrimination in the context of the pandemic was prioritized. For mental health, literature related to both generic factors such as quality of life, well-being and condition-specific aspects such as symptoms due to human rights abuses were included. The search strategy involved locating relevant concepts in PubMed and Embase databases. Relevant data was extracted and summarized into five main themes: (1) Mobility rights, quarantine, and lockdown, (2) Shortage of supplies and equipment for HCWs, (3) Child rights, (4) Elderly’s rights, and (5) Disproportionate impacts on minority rights and psychiatric patients.

A search was conducted in July 2020 for studies published during December 2019 to July 2020 with assistance from a health science librarian. After eliminating duplicates, we screened titles and abstracts (MR and MK) and did a secondary screening of full-text articles using the inclusion/exclusion criteria and extracted data (MR, RA, and MK). A cursory search of Google Scholar was also conducted to identify any possible missed studies that meet the inclusion criteria. All authors read and commented on human rights and mental health related literature and their associations. We have reported findings following the PRISMA guidelines.

Studies were included if they described an empirically based (data-driven either qualitatively or quantitatively) assessment of human rights violations, social stigma and discriminatory behaviors against people of certain ethnic backgrounds, HCWs, and anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus. It also included studies that reported mental, social, and behavioral health outcomes of the violations according to DSM/ICD classifications diagnostic categories or as ascertained using psychometric instruments. Furthermore, protocols and reports including guidelines by international agencies vetted by scientific and peer reviewers which address one of the primary outcomes were included. Studies were excluded if they tested one of the primary outcomes of interest without mentioning the association between them or the association between the constructs of interest or if those were not assessed in a data-driven approach. Systematic reviews, meta-analysis or scoping reviews were excluded if the analysis did not include one of the primary outcomes. Studies that are not peer-reviewed articles or not published in the English language were also excluded. Figure 1 shows the flowchart diagram of the selection of articles.

Figure 1

FIGURE 1. PRISMA flow diagram.


A total of 24 studies were included in this review (see Figure 1). There was a wide variation in the included studies between methodology, the study design, and location. These studies represented findings from 14 countries (six from HICs and eight LMICs). Based on their methodological approach, 14 used a cross-sectional study design, three were observational studies, two were case studies and the rest had differing study designs such as two being case controls.

Of the empirically based studies, five studies examined impacts of limited mobility rights, due to quarantine and lockdown, on mental health; four studies examined impacts of lack of PPE or stigma on HCWs; and the rest examined impacts of COVID-19 such as violation of right to education, health care, and access, on special populations, including children, elderly, minorities, and psychiatric patients. The sections below highlighted key results in each area. Table 1 describes the characteristics for articles reviewed under each area (e.g., country, theme of violation, study population, design, and findings).

Table 1

TABLE 1. Included studies.

Mobility Rights, Quarantine, and Lockdown

According to the international human rights law, restrictions of mobility including lockdown or mandatory quarantine due to public health emergency must be carried out for a legitimate purpose, based on scientific evidence, of limited duration, and respectful of human dignity. Quarantines are successful at limiting the spread of infectious diseases, but they introduce the side effects of increasing people’s risk for psychological impact including suicide and other behavioral symptoms.

In our review, three studies reported rise in suicide incidence in several countries due to mobility restriction and lockdown. In Colombia, a national-level lockdown increased the risk of suicide in vulnerable populations and among those with pre-existing predisposing factors such as emotional problems, financial troubles, and job loss. One out of 13 adult Colombians reported high suicide risk; people experiencing depressive episodes or poor sleep quality including insomnia, had a higher risk for suicidal behaviors than the general population. In Pakistan, most of the investigated suicide cases were carried out by individuals who were socially-economically impacted by economic turmoil and experiencing financial troubles caused by the lockdown. Similar findings were reported in India where suicide cases increased as COVID cases increased, especially among individuals with pre-existing mental illness and those in poor socio-economic conditions.

Mobility restrictions were also found to be correlated with poor mental and social well-being in developed countries. In Italy, lockdown restrictions mediated other mental and behavioral symptoms such as anxiety in patients with serious mental illness. In the United Kingdom, since the start of their national lockdown, 9% surveyed participants reported experiencing psychological or physical abuse during the lockdown. About, 18% reported experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm in the first month of lockdown and 5% reported harming themselves at least once since the start of the lockdown. Reported frequencies of abuse, self-harm, thoughts of suicide, and self-injurious behavior were higher among women, black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, people experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage, unemployment, disability, chronic physical illnesses, mental disorders and COVID-19 diagnosis. Furthermore, a study in the United States found an increased number of orthopedic trauma patients reporting a mental health diagnosis post-quarantine compared to pre-quarantine as well as an increased number of patients reporting interpersonal violence as the reason for their injury.

Shortage of Supplies and Equipment for HCWs

As part of the right to health, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights obliged the governmental and health agencies to plan and optimize the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) among HCWs during public health emergencies such as COVID-19. This also includes providing them with appropriate training, education, and informational material that can prevent physical and mental harm from health care-associated infections.

According to the UNICEF and WHO, it is estimated that the majority of HCWs provide services and work in environments that lack basic infrastructure to support water, sanitation, hygiene and basic health care-related waste management. Lack of PPE has found to have negative consequences on HCWs’ mental health. In a study conducted in Egypt, HCWs reported that crowded and ill-equipped workplaces and widespread shortages of PPE during COVID-19 pandemic increased their fear of getting a serious infection. These situations add emotional and mental burden for HCWs in attempting to self-isolate themselves from their families and communities. A cross-sectional study in Lebanon reported that quarantined HCWs suffered adverse mental effects such as anxiety, stress, and depression that increase under self-isolation because suspected COVID-19 infection. A similar study in Jordan found depression and anxiety to be more prevalent among HCWs than the general population. Specifically, pulmonologists and ENT specialists, who are at the frontline of the pandemic, scored higher in depression and anxiety surveys compared to other specialists.

Studies reported that fear in communities about the exposure to infection through interaction with HCWs expose them to fear-driven shunning and outright discrimination and persecution (3857). In Singapore, a study conducted among different HCWs found a higher perceived stigma level that was associated with higher levels of stress and post-traumatic stress symptoms. The study highlighted how internalization of stigma can reinforce avoidant behavior and social isolation which would increase traumatic stress symptoms, triggered by negative reactions from the surrounding community. Another study from Egypt found two-thirds of surveyed HCWs feared stigmatization and discrimination related to COVID-19. The authors suggested that in collective societies and faith-based communities in Egypt, social stigma associated with COVID-19 can be addressed through education, clear announcing of health care policies, and launching stigma reduction programs. A study from China on former COVID-19 patients, including 13.3% medical staff, found perceived discrimination was associated with clinically significant PTSD symptoms, severe depression, and severe anxiety.

Child Rights

According to the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (58), children’s rights include protection, education, health care, shelter, and good nutrition. Numerous studies have found impacts of the pandemic on children’s behavioral health, development and growth, physical health, and educational outcomes, with possible differential impacts by age and gender. In China, the national government imposed a reduction of outdoor activities and social interaction among the population, including children, out of fear of spreading the virus. This resulted in adverse outcomes in children’s mental, social, and behavioral health. Specifically, it found that during home confinement, Chinese children, ages 7–11, who felt insecure and anxious, had a significantly higher risk of depressive and anxiety symptoms. Also, the closure of schools and educational institutions in China during lockdown disrupted the learning and educational process. It also deprived students of the sense of stability and normalcy that schooling provides. In a survey of 8,140 students in different educational stages, the proportion of students who reported depressive and anxiety symptoms was high, especially among those preparing for entrance exams which had been disrupted. The same study reported that female and male students differ in their perceptions of the psychological impact due to losing access to schools during COVID-19 with girls suffering from greater psychological impact, including stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Also, specific facets of children’s rights, such as health care, shelter, and nutrition, were also affected. Specifically, families that deal with lockdown and COVID-19 related financial stressors, struggle to provide basic needs and daily supplies, resulting in adverse mental health outcomes for family members such as stress, anxiety, and depression.

Rights of Elderly Individuals

In recent years, there have been significant advocacy efforts supporting human rights of older persons including full respect for their needs, privacy, and health care. During COVID-19, elderly individuals were found to have less access to free movement including in open and public spaces which restricted their ability to exercise and engage in leisurely or other essential activities—deteriorating their mental health and well-being. In our review, we identified two studies in developed countries, and no studies related to elderly populations in developing countries. A study in Spain of community-dwelling older adults with mild cognitive impairment or dementia found that enforced lockdowns, curfews, and social isolation had more significant adverse psychological effects and exacerbated sleeping problems for elderly living alone. In contrast, another study found that the COVID stress-related factors, except for the loss of a loved one, were not statistically linked with the deterioration of psychological health among the elderly during stay-at-home orders; the participants showed resilience in managing COVID-related stress challenges due to sufficient personal resources.

Disproportionate Impacts on Minorities and Psychiatric Patients

In accordance with the UN Pact on civil and political rights, national, ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities are meant to freely receive health services without any discrimination. In the United States, which has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases as of August 2020 (Johns Hopkins University, 2020), the populations that have been impacted the most disproportionately are racial and ethnic minorities. Prevalence for COVID-19 infection was reported higher in ethnic minorities than whites given inequality in health, welfare service access, and other existing social structural issues such as structural racism and discrimination, and this inequality and right violations may have led to higher mental health problems in racial and ethnic minorities. A cross-sectional study investigating differences between awareness about COVID-19 by race and ethnicity found African-Americans and Hispanics were less likely to be informed about the pandemic and effective prevention methods. These findings align with another study in India where patients with mental illness from disadvantaged backgrounds had less access to information via the internet, media, online health information. Unequal access to information along with lack of proper health care during lockdown jeopardize their physical and mental health.

Spreading of infectious diseases often fuels racism and xenophobic tendencies, especially against racial and ethnic minorities. This results in a detrimental impact on the health well-being of disadvantaged minority populations and indirectly denies them access to medical care. A cross-sectional study linked xenophobia with mental well-being among ethnic/religious minorities: a survey of the non-Muslim Indian population found that fear, generalized xenophobia, and specific xenophobia, and collectivism negatively impacted their feelings and functional aspects of mental well-being. In another study, researchers screened the physical and mental health of minority migrants’ workers in 140 areas across India, which included construction sites, relief camps, government hostels, and shelter homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their findings underscored that the economic, social, and environmental disadvantages were bothersome to the migrants and were worsening their mental health, undermining their resilience, and upsetting their quality of daily living. The impact was prominent among pregnant women as the interviewees who were feeling overwhelmed and concerned about their lack of access to health services because of the pandemic.

Similarly, unintended consequences of the strict legal enforcement of lockdown during the COVID-19, including lack of access to medications and mental health professionals and coupled with lack of transportation, negatively impacted treatment compliance among psychiatric patients. Specifically, in India, a study of severely mentally ill patients during lockdown found 80% of patients missed their appointments and failed to contact their mental health professionals, 30% showed features of relapse of symptoms during the lockdown, and 22% stopped their psychiatric medication with patients from lower socioeconomic status, low literacy levels, and with inadequate social support showing less knowledge related to COVID-1. A similar pattern was observed among patients with Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in Italy. In a group of patients with OCD who had completed an evidence-based therapeutic path for OCD before the quarantine, there was significant worsening of OCD symptoms compared to the pre-quarantine period. The author hypothesized that the lockdown and limited access to mental health centers may have discouraged patients in from seeking help and delayed the needed interventions.

Psychiatric patients in China were found to show higher rates of anxiety, depression, and stress symptoms compared to the general population. Another study from China found insomnia patients had worse sleep latency, sleep duration, and sleep efficiency due to home isolation and insufficient knowledge (43). Due to limitation on mobility, cancer patients in Ghana were unable to engage in activities involving social gatherings, worsening their mental health. Even though psychiatric patients often experience high levels of social discrimination, in this review, a study in China reported that patients with mental illnesses had not been experiencing additional discrimination during the COVID-19 epidemic. Though, in India, self-isolation and stay-at-home orders forced many psychiatric patients to live in unsafe homes and increase their exposure to domestic violence. In India, ~63.6% of psychiatric patients reported that they were experiencing verbal and physical aggression from others and 30.3% of their caregivers expressed a feeling of the excessive burden of taking care of patients in addition to the burden related to other reasons, like financial issues related to the lockdown.



The review identified human rights violations that are associated with adverse mental health outcomes such as mobility restrictions including quarantines and lockdowns, shortages of supplies and equipment, stigma, xenophobia, and discrimination, losing access to schools and proper education, lack of access to information, and inequalities around access to quality mental health services. In addition, the findings of this review underscore several points in advancing our understanding and knowledge of human rights restrictions and violations and their association with mental health well-being during the COVID pandemic. Given these findings, we would like to make a case that human rights of individuals and vulnerable populations must be protected during this pandemic and given that mental health is one of the fundamental rights, it needs prioritization at the public policy levelHuman rights and mental health are such delicate entities that at times public health and public policy actions might compromise larger interests of the most afflicted or vulnerable populations. Evidence-based policies may not always be representative of all members of the community. Therefore, ethical and rights-based approaches to ensure no added harm or disenfranchisement of individuals/groups is a sentiment that needs to be acted upon post-pandemic.

Summary Findings Around Vulnerable Groups

From the articles reviewed, 24 identified studies were published between April and July 2020. This is consistent with the fact that the health emergency measures in response to COVID-19 were declared worldwide in March 2020 and therefore most relevant studies for this review would take place in the following months. Many of the identified studies were conducted in developed countries and there may be variation in the understanding of human rights and legislations across countries. See Table 2 that enlists Key UN human rights protocols and policy documents for diverse populations. The definition, understanding and agreement on vulnerable populations might also vary from one country context to the other. The understanding, development and functioning of public mental health systems might also vary in different geopolitical contexts. Previous studies found that many developing countries lack the basic legal framework to protect patients suffering with mental illness as well as a recognition that there is an absence of specific human rights policy during health emergencies to guide mitigation and protection measures. Both observations lend evidence to disproportionate impact on vulnerable key populations. The intersectional nature of multiple minoritized identities coalescing together such as being a migrant, disabled, and an adolescent girl—their complexity, need for comprehensive policy action—cannot be under-emphasized here.

Table 2

TABLE 2. Key UN human rights protocols and policy documents for diverse populations.

In our review, a strong association between the adverse mental health outcomes and human rights restrictions such as quarantine has been well-documented, a clear finding in our review with anxiety and mood disorders being the most common conditions impacting populations. Additionally, countries with higher-than-average rates of stress-related symptoms pre-COVID may continue to experience increases if effective measures are not implemented which necessitates a collective plan of action.

Findings of adverse mental health outcomes following human rights violations were reported among vulnerable subgroups such as children, girls, elderly, and racial/ethnic minorities. The two studies that examined the mental health-related adverse outcomes associated with human rights violations found significant deterioration in children’s mental, social, and behavioral health due to restriction in daily activities and movement. It is important to note that the lockdown and social distancing could cause children—and especially children with mental disorders including developmental disabilities or physical or psychological comorbidities—to be prevented from fulfilling their psychological needs and developmental milestones leading to underdevelopment (69). Furthermore, home confinement can increase child abuse as pre-pandemic the vast majority of abuse was reported by staff working at institutions which were temporarily closed raising concerns that child abuse will go unnoticed, leading to higher child morbidity and mortality and long-term negative developmental consequences. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 42–66 million more children potentially falling into poverty, and 13 million child marriages by 2030 that could otherwise have been averted, and 2 million more cases of female genital mutation by 2030 that could have been avoided. Child marriages, child labor and such practices can flourish unchecked during this protracted pandemic. This is also an example of practices and cultural traditions that would yield in harmful short and long term mental health outcomes for the vulnerable children.

In this review, we found that girls suffered varied mental health outcomes due to violations of their human rights via losing access to school. These are consistent with what is reported by WHO, as existing gender inequalities are exacerbated by COVID-19 which affect both genders differently. The realization of girls’ human rights and their well-being, especially during emergencies, have not always been accorded priority attention. Furthermore, females’ access to sexual and reproductive health services is likely to be affected. In our review, difficulties were reported by pregnant women in accessing basic prenatal services during the pandemic due to closure and movement restrictions and a previous report found that stay-at-home orders may contribute to women’s vulnerability and considered a risk factor for gender based violence. Mobility restrictions can increase domestic violence and in our review a study from the United States found an increase in orthopedic trauma patients reporting interpersonal violence post-lockdown compared with pre-lockdown with an increase in fractures in female patients indicating an increase in gender based violence. Additionally, a UN human rights report alluded to rise in gender based and domestic violence due to economic and psychosocial challenges. We do strongly recommend national level action on mitigating the harms caused by violence on women and girls as domestic violence is both a cause and consequence of mental ill-health. A gender responsive training for health care workers, police, law enforcement officers and social protection workers would be critical in reducing the disproportionate burden of mental ill-health that will fall on young girls and women exposed to abusive environments.

Our review found HCWs suffered negative consequences as a result of shortage of supplies and equipment as well as stigma. Other reports have also found mistreatment because of stigma toward HCWs such as the denial of public transport, eviction from homes, and assaults when carrying out duties negatively impacted their mental health. To mitigate stigma, proper health education is needed to target the public to prevent social harassments of HCWs and COVID-19 survivors.

Regarding elderly’s rights, two studies examined the association of human rights violations and mental health outcomes among elderly people in developed countries. Common characteristics across the studies that were indicative of human rights violations were: enforced lockdown, curfews, and restricted the ability to exercise and engage in essential activities. No identified study examined old age discrimination or factors that directly contributed to autonomy of elderly individuals. However, other reports have noted that well-intentioned but ageist public messages can cause the elderly to be marginalized and to mitigate this, countries can use inclusive language and avoid negative emphasis on risk. Furthermore, to lessen potential adverse mental health impacts on the elderly—especially those with mental disorders or predisposed to feelings of loneliness—due to home confinement and curtailing of mobility rights, countries can engage in promoting social connection in public health messaging, mobilizing resources from family members, and giving help via community-based networks. One of the moral imperatives we have as a global community is to strengthen mental health via reduction of increasing social isolation in the face of this protracted pandemic.

Studies have noted with concern adverse mental health outcomes due to human rights violations including lack of access to accurate and up-to-date information among racial and ethical minorities. Our review also found xenophobic viewpoints were correlated with negative well-being for both holding those viewpoints and those targeted which have co-incited with underreporting and biased media coverage as well as misinformation targeting religious minorities. In our review, a study has revealed an additional model of ecology of health and sickness based on social determinants of health among migrant workers which are one of most marginalized and stigmatized population in LMICs. It has also been noted that refugees and immigrants in detention centers face an increased likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder as many refugees associate economic hardship, food and medicine shortages with a threat to life alongside viewing military presence to enforce restrictions as a threat and not a protection. There has been little-to-no scholarly work on this subject though police brutality has been on the rise in context of enforcing stay-at-home and mask-guidelines. Concerns have been raised over the disproportionate impact of over policing in enforcing lockdown measures toward minority communitiesThere have also been reports of physical beatings or killings over breakings of curfew laws which is a violation of human rights. The mental stress and trauma associated with such events would become subject of further inquiry as time moves on but sensitivity training and ethical psychosocial response needs to be embedded within judicial and armed services assisting emergency response. Racial, ethnic and religious discrimination remains an area with very limited evidence around how mental health field can be leveraged to promote equity and social justice focused messages but also ways of providing care to aggrieved populations.

Human rights restrictions and violations have significant impacts on treatment outcomes, but higher impacts on patients with mental disorders given pre-existing mental health condition and social ostracization due to stigma. Research suggests that patients with mental illness are suffering from worsening of their pre-existing condition and difficulty in maintaining medication adherence because of restriction of mobility and lack of access to medications. This was coupled with increased experiences of verbal and physical violence at hands caregivers. It is important to limit the abuses of human rights of those with mental health conditions especially by curtailing marginalization and stigmatization and increasing resources toward providing services. Article 11 of the Convention on the rights of individuals with disabilities (CRPD) stipulating that all necessary measures to ensure protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk should be pursued. Furthermore, it is vital to ensure the well-being of caregivers of vulnerable individuals. This is especially pertinent in a disability setting as the caregiver’s well-being is also important for the well-being of their charge or family member. A side effect of the lockdown in Europe on people with disabilities has been a massive harmful impact with reductions, early discharge, and the stoppings of admissions to rehabilitation expected to lead to an increased rehabilitation demand after the emergency subsides. Despite the boom in digital health during the COVID-19, no reported studies examined the role of engagement of technology with available services in mitigating the structural barriers to getting mental health care during the COVID pandemic. For example, concerns have been expressed that digital health services may not assist in decreasing inequity due to factors such as limited access of digital health services for those in poverty. This is an area in need of serious research and policy level attention. Resource allocation in providing quality digital and telehealth services, online learning or improving access to services for high risk groups also needs urgent prioritization.

Upholding Global Rights Conventions and Further Recommendations

UN committees that monitor nation states human rights actions include UN International Covenant on Civil and Political rights (ICCPR), Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (CESCR), Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Committee on All forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW), Committee against Torture (CAT), Convention on the rights of the child (CRC), and CRPD. In the context of emergencies, these committees advocate for right to health, human rights in health systems as well as upholding of human rights through health. There are a number of guidelines in place as seen from Table 1 on key recommendations mostly from the Office of the High Commissioner around COVID-19 and vulnerable populations. The UN recommendations and guidance around COVID stipulates a public health approach to managing the pandemic impact based on equal rights, opportunity, and valuing freedoms especially of the most-at risk populations. Many share similar recommendations such as advising for more investment into these vulnerable populations to ensure the negative impacts of the lockdown—including quarantine, social distancing, economic fallout—are lessened and disproportionate limitations around access to services and rights due to structural inequities are addressed. It is important to consider these as they provide valuable insight in how to minimize the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic response and its response which embeds human rights informed care and risk mitigation pathway. However, there needs to be more emphasis on strategies that would address lockdown, public health action associated impacts and their mental health outcomes, and the need to prioritize mental health and well-being holistically. Given that the pandemic is going to take us through several waves of infection spread and containment, it is critical for this rights based approach to embrace short and long term mental health consequences and mitigation strategies.

If we are to achieve a shared vision of protecting the population from adverse mental effects due to the pandemic and necessary pandemic responses, policy makers would benefit from an increased focus on strengthening leadership and governance, finance mechanisms, and developing programs and policies that include vulnerable populations. For LMICs, it is critical for the service provision be focused on accessible and equitable evidence-based community care models corresponding with the existing mental health capacity to deliver care, train existing primary care staff to cater to increased mental health needs, implement prevention and promotion programs tailored to local needs, and support civil societies and employers to address the increased burden of mental illness.

Furthermore, mental health can be supported in the form of investment in the development of virtual platforms and telehealth to provide psychoeducation, self-guided low intensity interventions, alongside peer, and specialist-supported e-therapies. These can be embedded within integrated electronic health records and service platforms. Task shifting to provide psychosocial and peer-based support will also be useful such as using lay volunteers trained to provide human connectedness to address physical distancing and resultant isolation- a strategy well-adopted in LMICs. These approaches will also be beneficial in HICs in that effective management of the mental health consequences of the pandemic in historically marginalized communities requires a multilevel, community-wide approach led by culturally sensitive mental health professionals.

Improving Care for All

Regarding vulnerable and at-risk populations, there is a specific need to pay attention to their mental health as many of the inequities, access and service issues have longstanding history prior to COVID-19, and the pandemic has only further exacerbated them. Human rights violations in the mental health context remain significant throughout the world and cannot be explained by a lack of resources alone. WHO QualityRights initiative aims to reform human rights within mental health field and has developed policies and sensitization strategies to carry out system level strengthening of a holistic response to mental illness keeping our right to dignity, freedom and health at center. This thinking has been part of the WHO mental health treatment gap action program (mhGAP) framework to champion human rights informed thinking and rally for mental health as a core human right. Various fundamental human rights are interdependent therefore undermining one leads to a poor impact on others. This means that all human rights should be addressed together, including mental health.

To help strengthen mental health systems researchers should focus on developing robust information systems able to be enhanced by linking with other data sources to run predictive models using robust informatics methodology. A focus can also be placed on community-based interventions to address the COVID-19 mental health issues in integrated approach alongside innovative digital solutions. There is an urgent need for research to address how mental health consequences for vulnerable groups can be mitigated under pandemic conditions, and on the impact of repeated media consumption and health messaging around COVID-19.

Addressing human rights can be a helpful way to mitigate the impact of mental illness on populations especially during public health emergency. Policy and frameworks to address different aspects of human rights can complement the various form of health services to enhance the mental health well-being during pandemics. However, effective implementation of the medico-legal and ethical aspect of the human rights will rely on the extent to which the research proved a direct association between violations and adverse mental health outcomes and how the implementation will be applied through public policy. Going forward this understanding may help to minimize the mental health risk associated with violations of human rights during health emergencies and provide the policy makers useful directions on how to address discrimination and human right violations in guidance, policies, and practices. This review we hope has provided findings that set the foundation on how to integrate human rights as an integral part of public health response keeping mental health as a core thematic. In addition, the review provides pointers to ethical guidance when dealing with vulnerable populations especially during public heath crises (see Table 3 for further recommendations and overview of prominent findings). To target concerns about human rights violations during pandemics, policy makers should work with mental healthcare providers and target populations to ensure that suitable emergency health measures are provided through human rights lenses. This collaborative approach can pave the road to continue engaging or increasing engagement of different stakeholders in different sectors during stressful periods.

Table 3

TABLE 3. Emerging findings and recommendations going forward.

Although this review provides evidence that is valuable for addressing human rights perspectives while providing mental health services to different population, future research should (1) consider that some countries are still not signatories of the UN universal declaration of human rights and countries may have a different interpretation of what counts as a human rights violation; (2) countries also have different legal systems to define and enforce human rights measures; (3) there is need to arrive at a consensus on defining of human rights restrictions and violations in mental health and how it should be identified and quantified; and going forward through different UN human rights conventions as instruments to make that change; (4) adequate reporting of human rights restrictions and violations especially among vulnerable populations should be better etched out and this should include adverse mental health outcomes.

Strengths and Limitations

This review followed the guidelines for a rapid review. The review highlights human rights violations influencing the mental well-being in impacted population. We summarize the agreements and global or national policies that enforce human rights during emergencies as a reminder of what we ought to be looking out for and values countries need to hold themselves accountable to. Our findings contribute to a broader understanding of the impact of COVID pandemic on population health. This review does have some limitations, however. The research team tried to identify and include as many published papers as possible; however, because of the novelty of the topic, the defined articles were limited and the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic and associated scholarly literature could have caused some relevant articles to be missed. There is difficulty in creating a comprehensive list of human rights constructs as they are different based on factors such as target population and country of interest. Also, articles that were not data-driven were not included in our analysis, which may have impacted results of this review. Nevertheless, this approach was applied to ensure peer-reviewed articles were included which strengthens our results. Moreover, the study team attempted to group the results based on the themes that reported in the WHO report. We only included articles that addressed the research questions of focus of the review and therefore, generalizing the results on different setting and population should be done with caution.


Finally, this review also acknowledges the implications for guideline and policies on different populations and therefore, (1) efforts to improve engagement of policy makers may be beneficial to address mental health outcomes during public health emergency and (2) civil society and human rights champions (including lived experience representatives), health care providers, and policy makers should work together to identify the policy, services, and interventions that enforce human rights which have a lasting impact on mental health of key populations during emergencies. We will be better served to understand the tradeoffs and the reciprocating relationships among physical health, mental health, human rights, and individual rights, that there could be better statements in global reports of values-driven, shared objectives in light of these tradeoffs and relationships, and a more thorough consideration of many relevant areas of science (including but not limited to, infectious disease) to establish a policy that strikes the most acceptable balance.


Part 1

The continuing challenge of human rights

In the last half century, the language of human rights has become commonplace. It became, to the dismay of many, a political tool during the Cold War period and entered into foreign policy as a highly selective weapon to use against one’s enemies. Looking on the positive side, the Cold War period played an enormous role in making the human rights language heard around the world. It is doubtful that the United Nations alone could have carried out such an effective dissemination.

The demand for a just international system is, arguably, at a peak today. The global peace protest on February 15, 2003 brought together millions on all continents not just to demonstrate against the then impending war against Iraq but also in support of the United Nations system. A reason for this sense of injustice, among others, is that we have failed to end violations of basic human rights. Social, cultural, civil, economic and political rights are incorporated in international and national legal systems but enjoyed in reality by few.

Why is there this continuing disrespect for rights? And how can we change this?

Who must respect human rights?

The first question may seem obvious but it is worth exploring: who needs to respect human rights? That is, who is responsible for the continuing lack of respect?

One common answer to this question is that the state must respect human rights. This is correct. The worst abuses, omissions and transgressions are the responsibility of the state. The state here is taken as the governing authority (including the police, the courts, the legislature, the public services and foreign policy) arising from some form of social compact. The presence and power of state authority is so prevalent in all spheres of our lives that human rights are often conceived as a set of principles or contracts between the state and those governed by it.

It is argued here, however, that human rights go beyond the state-citizen relationship for three reasons: (1) they require individual, voluntary submission to a correlated obligation to respect the rights of others; (2) they are both positively and negatively affected by non-state authorities; and (3) the shrinking mandates of states around the world further reduce the state’s role. In recognition of the broad set of actors who must respect rights, Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly mentions “a social and international order” that implies other actors, including individuals, communities, other non-state authorities, corporations and the international community at large.

First of all, respect for human rights is the responsibility of individuals. Even the greatest abuses of human rights are often, but not always, the fault of an individual. The action of individuals is magnified through access to state, corporate or informal authority. The separation of individuals from the contexts in which they are formed, nurtured and thrive is folly. But clearly individuals must respect rights.

The illusion of the state as the only responsible party for human rights should be further dispelled. Authority arises from any power that one individual or group has over another, not just state authority. Social groups have this authority over their members. The state can restrict or discourage their abuses but it is not immune from the power they exert. Our hypothesis must explain also why these social forces, both formalized and informal groupings that compose a level of “authority”, do not respect human rights.

The private sector assumes de facto control of many areas critical for human rights, and to this extent an exclusive focus on state authority does not explain why people’s rights are not respected. The enormous struggles for the creation of a concept of the social responsibility of the corporate sector in the last decades should serve to illustrate the need for a human rights discussion that includes and transcends the state/citizen duality. The Global Compact, promoted by the UN, is one example of such a discussion.

Returning to our question, we seek a reason for why we (keeping in mind that the “we” here includes individuals, state, private sector and social groups) choose to respect or not respect human rights. We will start by examining reasons for people to respect human rights.

Why do people respect human rights?

Three reasons to respect rights are posited for the purpose of this paper: cognitive, instrumental and moral reasons.

Cognitive reasons. We need to know what rights are. Information is critical for making choices. It comes to us through diverse cultural, media and educational sources. Information about human rights must link individuals with the universalized principles and integrate human rights, or be clear where it does not, within contextually developed values.

This is not a trivial matter. In many societies and languages, the words and terms of the rights vocabulary either do not exist or are being invented. The concept that people are endowed with rights is often contrary to day-to-day experience, existing privileges, religious and hierarchical entitlements and cultural systems. This is true not just of extreme practices such as female genital mutilation or caste systems, but also of such perceived rights in various societies to bear arms, punish with the death penalty or use children as soldiers.

To the extent that human rights are not respected because of a lack of understanding, it is critical to invest in education. But cognition is not only a result of formal education. Dialogue and active participation in the evolution of a rights language is key to a supportive cognitive logic. Education, in this sense, creates a common language. It does not force people to follow the rules of human rights but enables them to make informed choices. Cognitive reason, thus, is a necessary but non-compelling force in the logic of human rights. Suffice it to say that some of the greatest violations of human rights in modern history have taken place in the best educated societies.

Instrumental reason. People respect rights to attain rewards or escape punishment. Taking a narrow instrumental view, respect for rights is reinforced if disrespecting them is clearly damaging to one’s image, physical well-being or integrity and respecting them is likewise beneficial. To have an instrumental value, respecting rights must make one better off. Through this instrumental reasoning, called utilitarianism in the tradition of Bentham, individuals seek to maximize social and economic utility. Three instrumental reasons bear discussion – state coercion, peer pressure and reciprocity.

1. To the extent that people fear and expect punishment or reward from the state they will respect a rule of law incorporating human rights. This could be called the hobbesian argument. This could be called the hobbesian argument. State coercion can be an effective instrument for human rights in some circumstances and is also a necessary condition because there will always exist some degree of antisocial behavior that cannot be otherwise controlled. But people also respect rights in the absence of coercion. It would be untenable for any society to bear the cost of the level of state coercion that would be needed to ensure compliance with all legal rights. Imagine, for instance, if the threat of a fine or worse were the only reason people do not run red lights. Much more compelling is the instinct to avoid an accident coupled with understanding of why following the rule will help us to do that.

The spectrum of punishment or reward that states can use as instruments has been reduced over the last decades. States maintain a monopoly over violence (war) and punishment (legal systems) but their action has been visibly reduced in the area of social services, most particularly employment, education, health, social security and other areas connected with ponderously under-respected social and economic rights.

Likewise, while a part of the solution, we should not forget that states have been the worst abusers of human rights. We must both strengthen restricted and positive state coercion while seeking accountability and reasonable limits on state authority.

2. Instrumental reasons extend beyond legal frameworks. People are part of groups and communities that shape and determine their actions. A second instrumental reason for respecting human rights is an expectation of retaliation or benefit from a community to which one belongs. For obvious reasons, peer pressure is a complex and indirect reason for human rights. Individuals do not belong to only one group. They are influenced by many – very few of which have anything to do with rights. But the closeness and participation of individuals in groups suggests that peer pressure has considerable influence.

3. We impart to others the rights that we wish for them to impart to us. Reciprocity is theoretically friendly to difference. It gives us a reason to expect that necessarily different people should be treated as we would like to be treated. We listen, thus, because we want to be heard and we respect property because we want to hold on to our own property. Reciprocity does not assert any transcendental quality of good and evil. It does not imply that murder, torture, starvation, illiteracy and preventable illness are bad in themselves. What it does assert is that I cannot accept these things for others unless I accept them also for myself. It neither affirms nor denies the existence of a deeper moral framework. Beyond this, it has little to say about situations of unequal worth. Reciprocity as a reason to respect human rights is unstable. Starting from a structure of mutual advantage, individuals have an incentive to cheat, that is “what is in my interest is that everybody else cooperates and I defect.” In other words, that everybody else adheres to rules that are mutually advantageous if generally adhered to and I break them whenever it is to my advantage to do so.

Moral reasons. People respect rights because they believe humans are endowed with equal moral value. Rights make no sense unless we accept a moral, fundamental human dignity and that every human deserves to be treated as an end and not a means. This is the Kantian argument to respect rights. Morality is easy to grasp but is resistant to reductionism. A moral reason to respect rights can be framed from a more procedural perspective; we have to respect other people’s rights because, by democratic consensus, we agree that humans are endowed with them, regardless of status, social condition, race or whatever other differences exist.

The point is that human rights must have a moral authority as minimalist, operating principles – not as a utopian vision. As we have witnessed in the last decade in Rwanda, Kosovo, Colombia and Myanmar, to take only a few examples, we are still far from realizing these protections. Without such, millions of people will continue to fall victim to unbridled power and ambition.

In summary, we propose key elements of explaining respect for rights include: knowing what they are and reflecting upon them; symmetry and consonance with instrumental logic; and the belief in the equal, moral dignity of all humans. Practically, these three conditions imply that human rights norms themselves are dynamic, and arise out of social processes. Jürgen Habermas, in his development of a discourse ethics, theorizes as to how such a process looks: “For a norm to be valid, the consequences and side effects that its general observance can be expected to have for the satisfaction of the particular interests of each person affected must be such that all those who affected can accept them freely”.  The validation of norms from diverse perspectives ensures that the cognitive, instrumental and moral authority of a respect for rights is implanted deeply within the grain of society. Thus, we see ongoing social discourse as the process that creates the logical conditions for the respect of human rights.

Why do people not respect other people’s rights?

One of the most pressing issues for those who would promote human rights today is social and economic inequality. Actual inequality is staggering and growing. As an illustration, we consider economic inequality measured by access to financial resources (we could just as well discuss persistent inequalities arising from religious, social, class, gender, race or sexual preferences). About one in five people in the world live on less than one dollar a day. In countries like Brazil, the richest one percent controls the same amount of resources as the poorest 50 percent. As the Human Development Reports published by the United Nations Development Programme show, lack of resources means also lack of proper education, health conditions, housing, water and other sanitary conditions. The absence of these basic conditions for the majority creates a situation of disparity and inferiority between those with access and those without. The same circumstances can be found in both central and peripheral nations.

Both economic and social inequality trigger moral exclusion. They reduce the perception of equal worth of every human being, destroying the conditions for the respect of human rights. In the 2002 Brazilian presidential campaign, a key candidate declared, he would “defend human rights, but would also defend right (law-abiding) human beings.”  This is to say that people can be less than human if they do not fit into the category of valuable people. It is still all too easy to secure our own good by focusing on an easy enemy. Rights under such circumstances can often appear a farce, an issue of power for those who are among the lucky few negotiating the terms for those excluded. Moral exclusion manifests itself through two distinct characteristics:

Invisibility of those who are devalued. Their actual pain and suffering is not shared by those who are valued. While they exist as a collective force (economically as a means to production, politically as a subject of governance) they have little voice and few direct means to move or constrain those who are on top. Their opaque and silent submission to highly hierarchical realities makes them invisible. This invisibility is strengthened over time by a cultural reinforcement that is often accepted and even deepened with the collusion of members of the invisible groups. Negative perceptions of capacity and inequality become the statu quo and are, thus, imbedded in all levels of action and impervious to change.

Demonization of those who are being devalued and who would challenge the statu quo. The sheer force and numbers of devalued populations – whether seeking religious or race equality; trying to attain goods, such as land, employment or health services; or behaving in an anti-social manner – are a direct threat to wealthier or better endowed elements of society with a stake in maintaining or expanding existing privileges. In this way, the efforts of the devalued appear as the problem that needs to be eliminated. Violence is often the instrument used to deal with those who challenge injustice.

Policies, social practices and even laws that deny equal worth to those in vulnerable groups are still commonplace. In order to make them viable, they are always justified in terms of a social priority or as economic imperatives. The fear engendered in the United States, for example, after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center allowed the US government to ignore the rights of Afghani soldiers captured in the subsequent retributive war against that country and to wage a global campaign against demonized enemies whether or not it could be justified by international law. In the developing world, minimum social rights are being disregarded in the name of orthodox economic principles. To some extent, fear for national and international security trumps human rights. But a strong social base in which human rights are understood, consistent with systems of reward and benefit and part of the moral language, will provide minimalist limits.

The consequences of this process of devaluation of humanity are very negative for the realization of human rights – and are at least a partial answer to why human rights are not respected in the world today. Those on the bottom of the social pyramid, whose rights should be protected, are treated as objects or enemies. At the same time, the impunity and privilege of those on the top is reinforced. The problem is the need to develop the logic of human rights – call it an ethical cosmopolitanism  – that would convince individuals, groups and societies to treat every individual as an end of equal intrinsic worth. This would be a cosmopolitanism in which human rights are well integrated into curricula (cognitive reason), promoted through enforcement and reward systems (instrumental reason) and made obvious through a shared norm of the dignity of humanity (moral reason).

Following on the Habermas quote above, we emphasize the notion that the realization of human rights has both moral and political dynamics realized through social discourse. This discourse ethics necessitates actual dialogue and structures for enabling ongoing exchange in order for a norm to be seen from all perspectives. It requires symmetry, impartiality and openness that must be driven by voluntary association, which maximizes the choice and the full participation of the individual. We turn to civil society as the natural environment in which such diverse perspectives and the dialogue about norms is an ongoing process. The logic of civil society is the action of individuals and groups to express and realize the valid and diverse desires and needs of society. The next sections of this paper will reflect on the role of civil society in constructing a global ethical cosmopolitanism for the realization of human rights.

Part 2

Civil society and human rights

What do we understand by civil society and why do we think a strong civil society is important for ensuring respect of human rights? The expression “civil society” has been appropriated by different and sometimes opposite intellectual and political traditions.

From a normative perspective, we define civil society as the sphere of life that has not been colonized by the instrumental ethos of the state and the market. In the machiavellian tradition, the struggle for power between and within states is based on a strategic way of acting, where the legitimacy of the means is measured by the results. This instrumental ethos collides with the morality of rights in which people are an end in themselves and cannot morally be used for the achievement of other objectives. In the market, this instrumental ethos also prevails since the logic of the economy is the maximization of benefits (economic benefits) with minimal resources, where people (workers) are a means for producing profits. In a world dominated by the market and states, the ongoing social, political and economic discourse that takes place within civil society is critical for creating and strengthening the conditions necessary for the respect of human rights. This is not to diminish the strategic importance of developing good, democratic governance and corporate social responsibility. But more responsive human rights models will only emerge through the catalyst of a healthy civil society.

The definition of civil society proposed by Jan Aart Scholte is a useful starting point: “Civil society is the political space where voluntary associations explicitly seek to shape the rules (in terms of specific policies, wider norms and deeper social structures) that govern one or the other aspect of social life”.

Organizations and associations of civil society assume different forms with one common feature: they amplify the voices of particular interests and are natural advocates for devalued or invisible groups. Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato suggest four features of civil society that we take as a framework for understanding the breadth of potential impact of the human rights discourse that takes place in civil society: publicity (institutions of culture and communication), plurality (differentiation of interest and form), privacy (an environment supportive to the development and expression of the individual) and legality (the structure of basic laws and rights that enable publicity, plurality and privacy).

Associations seeking human rights often emerged as a response to governmental abuse, generalized or specific restrictions on human rights or other adverse circumstances. The movement includes a range of organizations that formulate a discourse of emancipation and social justice in terms of rights. Human rights-oriented associations have made a strategic decision to promote human rights discourse as opposed to other political forms of action. The divisions within these associations reflect the development of these concepts in United Nations treaties along these divisions: civil and political rights (participation in government, protection of individual security, association and expression, access to justice), social and economic rights (income, employment, education and training, health services, access to information) and cultural rights.

How is civil society a critical human rights actor?

Progress in human rights requires the establishment of conditions conducive to their respect. These conditions create norms that take on cognitive, instrumental and moral aspects, which arise from an ongoing dialogue that engages diverse perspectives and constantly recreates these norms as dynamic and universal principles. If one is seeking justice, it is impossible to skip this process, because the dialogue itself is a component of justice. The realization of rights is a process and cannot be effected solely through incorporation of rights in national and international legal structures. Civil society creates and recreates the conditions for validating and realizing human rights. We emphasize five aspects of this action: (1) providing a sphere of action for all social groups; (2) making injustice public; (3) protecting private spaces from state and market incursion; (4) intervening and interacting directly with legal and political systems; and (5) driving social innovation.

Providing a discourse of plurality. Human rights discourse must be practical, responsive and accessible to a plurality of perspectives. This discourse needs to engage devalued and invisible groups as proponents for the change that they perceive as necessary to justice. Obviously, civil society is the home to conflicting claims for justice and one aspect of the dialogue is a negotiation between various rights and in the distribution of resources invested in solutions. For example, both personal security and fair treatment under the law can be seen as keys to provide justice to an individual. The individual will view these rights from a different perspective depending on whether he or she is living in a state of insecurity or is directly affected by a legal action. The human rights discourse is not a mechanism for the resolution of these issues; it is a space within which they can be resolved through the interaction and dialogue of all those affected by a given problem.

Making injustice public. Civil society groups are good watchdogs for injustice because they give voice to perspectives and vantage points that are otherwise unheard. For this to be true, association and dialogue must be open and with minimal intervention. In this fashion, civil society assists in the realization of human rights by bringing injustice into the public sphere. A problem can arise when more influential and powerful groups within civil society itself drown out the voices of the less powerful. This can be partly counteracted by the associative principle – individuals associate on various levels and with various interests based on their own social and private needs for expression – and because the strength of civil society arises directly from the co-existence of diverse perspectives. In this way, diverse groups act on human rights by publicizing and bringing to light injustice and advocating or exerting pressure for change. Groups can exert pressure by producing and providing information, educating the public and others, proposing public policies and taking legal action.

Protecting private space. Civil society defines a space for individual expression and development that is separate from the citizen or consumer logic of the state and market. Individuality is expressed through association or non-participation and is, thus, largely elective. In terms of rights, this view of the individual is critical because it conceives a person as the end in him/herself. Human rights groups protect this space by seeking the positivist conditions necessary to enable individual expression and reinforcing the limits of state and market action.

Intervening and interacting directly with legal and political systems. To some extent, in every country and on the international level, law and public policy conducive to the realization of human rights have been promulgated. The laws and norms embodied in these systems are only effective to the extent that they are used, refined, supported, and thereby validated by civil society. Human rights groups have participated directly in this process by bringing legal cases before the courts, by providing information and data critical to the refinement of public policy and by proposing new mechanisms or the eradication of ineffective ones, with a view to the creation of a supportive framework for human rights. This intervention should be strategic, with a focus on paradigmatic change and pressure on government policy to be more consistent with the ongoing human rights discourse.

Driving social innovation. Social innovation is a proactive human rights approach that must take place on manageable levels, where dialogue, feedback and results are open and accountable to diverse perspectives. Innovation happens through the creation of models on smaller scales that show the possibility of solutions to intractable issues of justice on larger scales. Social innovation in civil society emerges as a direct response to localized injustices. Innovators are deeply aware and involved with those affected by this injustice and, working with them, try out and invent approaches for their resolution. This happened in South Africa, for example, with the Social Change Assistance Trust, which created and supported community legal assistance structures during the apartheid era that demonstrated  inexpensive, minimal infrastructure could be provided in rural areas to make justice accessible.  It is happening in Brazil today, with various social groups seeking more effective ways to use the court system and the Constitution for the redress of long-standing injustice. The Pro Bono Institute that provides high quality volunteer lawyers to social groups is one example in which the authors are involved.

In short, civil society is a key player in creating the conditions for the realization of human rights. It promotes human rights discourse that validates rights norms, particularly by including devalued and invisible groups. The forms of this discourse are also diverse, and give rise to diverse strategies and means through which the logics of human rights can be realized in society. This brief discussion of the role of civil society leaves one, however, with an obvious question: if civil society is a powerful and important actor in the realization of human rights, what is keeping it from being effective?

What prevents civil society from achieving a stronger impact in human rights?

Flexibility, diversity and volunteerism, some of the strengths of civil society, are also its weakness. Civil society, neither protected nor powerful in relation to the state and market, is largely divided and lacks financial and other resources. Several of these characteristics are reflected in the challenges of the human rights movement today. This paper discusses three: fragmentation (both thematic and geographical), neutraliza-tion of discourse and resource dependency that will be sketched out below:


Fragmentation of the rights movement has created a competition for space, voice and resources that breaks the solidarity around human rights. In order to become more effective, human rights organizations must seek ways to strengthen joint action and discourse among diverse actors.

Human rights groups are working on a variety of themes and issues; including torture, police abuse, HIV/Aids, housing, social and economic rights, discrimination, and even such themes as environmental protection and development. The thematic fragmentation has both a positive and a very negative aspect. The positive aspect is that the diversity of action and involvement reflects the diversity of interests within a social discourse leading to a relevant framework of human rights. Their work covers many areas of importance to devalued populations, giving voice to invisible groups and bringing to light those who are forgotten or ignored. The negativeaspects are several: (1) the diversity of interest can create a competition for public attention and resources needed in addressing particular rights issues, thereby diminishing the sense of a shared human rights cause; and (2) associated to the first is the channeling of social energy in different directions, impoverishing social discourse.

Another division that must be dealt with runs South/North. It is less related to geography than to a conceptual “peripheral” access to resources of the majority of the world’s population. Some international agreements, such as those on human rights, have counted on little participation from peripheral populations in the past (it should be noted that UN conferences [e.g.: Rio de Janeiro 1992, Vienna 1993, Beijing 1995 and Durban 2001], have marked a welcome increase in the participation of the South). Southern actors need to become stronger proponents within the international human rights movement. Recognizing that the strongest organizations naturally grew up in the shadow of international government agencies and the resources and power of the North, we must bring human rights home. The South must participate to a greater extent on the international level of human rights action because it is in great need of human rights protections and approaches, and its populations are those who are least served within the existing rights legal infrastructure.

An aspect of the South/North divide is the need to reinforce the credibility of local human rights organizations in the South with their own governments and societies. They often work in the shadow of or as subsidiaries to Northern organization, relying on the advocacy of organizations based in Washington, New York, London, Paris and Geneva. Secrecy, of course, is a survival strategy in countries that are actively repressing human rights and human rights advocates. But it is not a good strategy once minimal protections have been achieved because human rights must be made public and visible. Human rights organizations in the South must improve their reach and credibility within their own contexts and in the international arena.

Neutralization of the Discourse

Human rights gained momentum in struggles against authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. In the North, human rights are an important subtext at this exact moment. Human rights organizations need to understand and act in the political space.

Once crises are over, human rights organizations often recede into the background. Some of the most skilled leaders move into government; others, having accomplished what they set out to do, abandon the social sphere altogether. But after the establishment of democratic structures and the rule of law, the human rights movement faces its most onerous challenges in translating rights into reality. Here, in the end of a repressive period, we confuse the struggle for rights with a revolution that can be won with a constitutional document, a voting booth and a free press. There is more need than ever for specific policies, wider norms and deeper social structures to realize human rights. These must be tested and must grow out of the communities where we live in partnership with government and with the private sector.

That is why it is a mistake for human rights organizations to seek political neutrality (to the extent that this is possible) to make their discourse more acceptable and credible to the public and the state. While the political neutralization of discourse avoids conflict, it also avoids critical debate.

Of course, human rights organizations should avoid partisan struggles but they also must understand them. Removal from the political sphere de-legitimizes the struggle of those who are seeking change through political means. In this way, social justice movements in the Chiapas in Mexico, the landless movement in Brazil, the HIV/Aids movement in South Africa and other social “uprisings” are approached cautiously by some human rights organizations. Human rights must be relevant to the real demands of the disenfranchised. The realization of rights springs from deep, gradual and ongoing processes of social negotiation. The professionalization of human rights – acquiring skills, capacity and institutional support – is an important activity – but it should be complemented by the mainstreaming of human rights in the political sphere and stronger linkages with social justice movements.

Resource Dependency and Funder-Oriented Action

The needs for financial and other resources grow as organizations start to act in new areas, as their workforce transforms from voluntary activists to professional, highly trained advocates, and as the challenges require longer term approaches. Nevertheless, only a handful of foundations and other donors are investing in human rights, and among this group, fewer are willing to invest in more heterodox, smaller, transient organizations.

Resources are being raised from governments and government groupings (North American and European governments and to some extent other regional groupings and some governments in the global south), foundations set up by the private sector, family foundations and individuals. The source of the funding has a significant impact on the conceptualization of priorities and the definition of human rights themselves. For example, US government funding has traditionally emphasized civil and political rights over social and economic rights, reflecting that country’s vision on human rights.

The competition for these scarce resources creates a perverse cycle where human rights organizations adapt their initiatives and language to funding priorities. Resources are channeled to those organizations that are viewed as reliable in terms of the scope of a funding mandate. But the problem with resources is not that funding organizations have priorities, it is the over-reliance on few sources of funding. Human rights organizations are tempted to monopolize the discourse for their own credibility and survival. One way to reverse this is for funders to adopt strategies to catalyze open dialogue and links between human rights movements of various sizes, ages and geographic scope and to assist in developing more sustainable funding.

But beyond this, the human rights movement must expand the full spectrum of its resources: contributed ideas, expertise, knowledge, time, space and commitment. Strategic financial resources can leverage these contributions but not replace them.

How can human rights movements strengthen their action?

The future human rights movement should strategically focus on reinforcing and deepening the validation of norms that lead to creating a logic for the respect of human rights. Its action, as discussed above, must promote this infusion through participation of a plurality of perspectives, publicity of injustice, engagement with the state justice infrastructure, protecting private space and promoting social innovation. Fragmentation, neutralization of the discourse and resource dependency are impediments standing in the way of progress in each of these areas. In reflecting on the way forward, we believe that there are several important strategies that will pay off with greater impact and results.

Improve our capacity for communication and education

Neither modern communications nor educational systems are today focused on promoting social discourse or the diffusion of human rights information. Human rights organizations need to improve their capacity to make use of these systems as they exist, to broaden the reach of social dialogue.

This means continuing and improving educational initiatives that introduce people to the language of human rights, but also pioneering proactive dialogues with governments, the private sector and other social movements. New forms of accessible media – manuals, handbooks, school curricula, music and art – in which the human rights movement must become fluent have opened up. Simple exposure to human rights, the potential benefits and the worth of humanity is a critical message that needs to enter into the variety of educational experience designed to reach a bigger audience.

In addition to the promotion of principles and language into accessible forms, it must be realized that human rights is not a closed body of knowledge. By making use of existing communication and education systems, we must seek out ways to build ongoing feedback mechanisms and continuing dialogue.

Invest in socially innovative models

Human rights organizations are becoming increasingly skilled at publicizing injustice, as they should be. The negative story of human rights, however, needs to be balanced with the existence of viable alternatives. We believe that this calls for a proactive approach. On civil and political rights, for example, models need to be created to show how judicial systems can be opened for better access, how criminal offenders can be fairly treated, how more citizens can participate in government, how to redress discriminatory practices. In the area of economic and social rights, in addition to continued pressure for the government and market to take action toward their realization, we also need models to show how we can attain them. The innovation of approaches to human rights on a small scale will pay off in demonstrating that better large-scale systems are possible and will provide human rights organizations with a much stronger position.

Build human rights networks that heal fragmentation and strengthen resource use

Through their identification with and participation in networks, human rights organizations exchange information, learn from the experience of others, stimulate international solidarity and create an environment for dialogue that favors equal protagonism in the universal discourse of human rights. By definition, networks are horizontal. They facilitate but do not monopolize discourse, improve the capacity of individual organizations to use resources effectively and provide opportunity to less visible groups. Many, many networks exist today, ranging from those with formal membership to those that are so loosely constructed it is difficult to give them a name. What we mean by networking is to take the actuality of the social process as critical for the realization of human rights. This engagement has to happen across levels of society with individuals, community groups, universities, government agencies and corporations; it also means active and constant dialogue with a variety of interests and not just those that agree with us.

A concluding reflection

This paper set out to explore why people do not respect rights and to provide some practical ideas about changing this situation. Towards this, we have suggested that the logical framework for rights is in need of development and that a promising path lies in understanding respect for human rights as something that emerges from a process that must be continually realized through social discourse. This has implications for the human rights movement today. While it has achieved some successes, particularly in the areas of advocacy and education, it could be much more effective as a convener of under-represented groups and perspectives and in fostering space for the strengthening of human rights norms.

These arguments do not provide any single easy answer. They suggest some reason to be optimistic, however, if the awakening consciousness of civil society in many parts of the world can lead to greater respect for human rights. Putting faith in a process of social discourse may be insufficient for those whose rights are violated today but without this process their situations will remain invisible and the universal moral dignity underlying their rights will not overcome the stage of a theoretical construct. Optimism is warranted because the social processes discussed in this paper are attainable and in some cases under way.

Resources, “What Are Basic Human Rights?”;, ” CPI 2021: Corruption, Human Rights and Democracy.” By Jon Vrushi and Roberto Martinez B. Kukutschko;, “10 Human Rights Issues Of The Future.”;, “What Are Human Rights: Definition, Types, Issues & Violations.” By Jonathan Day;, “Mental Distress and Human Rights Violations During COVID-19: A Rapid Review of the Evidence Informing Rights, Mental Health Needs, and Public Policy Around Vulnerable Populations.” By Muhammad Rahman, Rabab Ahmed, Modhurima Moitra, Laura Damschroder, Ross Brownson, Bruce Chorpita, Priscilla Idele, Fatima Gohar, Keng Yen Huang, Shekhar Saxena, Joanna Lai, Stefan Swartling Peterson, Gary Harper, Mary McKay, Beatrice Amugune, Tammary Esho, Keshet Ronen, Caleb Othieno and Manasi Kumar;, “REFLECTIONS ON CIVIL SOCIETY AND HUMAN RIGHTS.” ByOscar Vilhena Veira and A. Scott Dupree;


Part 1: Human Rights Fundamentals

A Short History of Human Rights

The belief that everyone, by virtue of her or his humanity, is entitled to certain human rights is fairly new. Its roots, however, lie in earlier tradition and documents of many cultures; it took the catalyst of World War II to propel human rights onto the global stage and into the global conscience.

Throughout much of history, people acquired rights and responsibilities through their membership in a group – a family, indigenous nation, religion, class, community, or state. Most societies have had traditions similar to the “golden rule” of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Hindu Vedas, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Bible, the Quran (Koran), and the Analects of Confucius are five of the oldest written sources which address questions of people’s duties, rights, and responsibilities. In addition, the Inca and Aztec codes of conduct and justice and an Iroquois Constitution were Native American sources that existed well before the 18th century. In fact, all societies, whether in oral or written tradition, have had systems of propriety and justice as well as ways of tending to the health and welfare of their members.

Precursors of 20th Century Human Rights Documents

Documents asserting individual rights, such the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791) are the written precursors to many of today’s human rights documents. Yet many of these documents, when originally translated into policy, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups. Nevertheless, oppressed people throughout the world have drawn on the principles these documents express to support revolutions that assert the right to self-determination.

Contemporary international human rights law and the establishment of the United Nations (UN) have important historical antecedents. Efforts in the 19th century to prohibit the slave trade and to limit the horrors of war are prime examples. In 1919, countries established the International Labor Organization (ILO) to oversee treaties protecting workers with respect to their rights, including their health and safety. Concern over the protection of certain minority groups was raised by the League of Nations at the end of the First World War. However, this organization for international peace and cooperation, created by the victorious European allies, never achieved its goals. The League floundered because the United States refused to join and because the League failed to prevent Japan’s invasion of China and Manchuria (1931) and Italy’s attack on Ethiopia (1935). It finally died with the onset of the Second World War (1939).

The Birth of the United Nations

The idea of human rights emerged stronger after World War II. The extermination by Nazi Germany of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani (gypsies), homosexuals, and persons with disabilities horrified the world. Trials were held in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, and officials from the defeated countries were punished for committing war crimes, “crimes against peace,” and “crimes against humanity.”

Governments then committed themselves to establishing the United Nations, with the primary goal of bolstering international peace and preventing conflict. People wanted to ensure that never again would anyone be unjustly denied life, freedom, food, shelter, and nationality. The essence of these emerging human rights principles was captured in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address when he spoke of a world founded on four essential freedoms: freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear (See Using Human Rights Here & Now). The calls came from across the globe for human rights standards to protect citizens from abuses by their governments, standards against which nations could be held accountable for the treatment of those living within their borders. These voices played a critical role in the San Francisco meeting that drafted the United Nations Charter in 1945.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Member states of the United Nations pledged to promote respect for the human rights of all. To advance this goal, the UN established a Commission on Human Rights and charged it with the task of drafting a document spelling out the meaning of the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the Charter. The Commission, guided by Eleanor Roosevelt’s forceful leadership, captured the world’s attention.

On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the 56 members of the United Nations. The vote was unanimous, although eight nations chose to abstain.

The UDHR, commonly referred to as the international Magna Carta, extended the revolution in international law ushered in by the United Nations Charter – namely, that how a government treats its own citizens is now a matter of legitimate international concern, and not simply a domestic issue. It claims that all rights are interdependent and indivisible. Its Preamble eloquently asserts that:

The influence of the UDHR has been substantial. Its principles have been incorporated into the constitutions of most of the more than 185 nations now in the UN. Although a declaration is not a legally binding document, the Universal Declaration has achieved the status of customary international law because people regard it “as a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.”

The Human Rights Covenants

With the goal of establishing mechanisms for enforcing the UDHR, the UN Commission on Human Rights proceeded to draft two treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and itsoptional Protocol and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Together with the Universal Declaration, they are commonly referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights. The ICCPR focuses on such issues as the right to life, freedom of speech, religion, and voting. The ICESCR focuses on such issues as food, education, health, and shelter. Both covenants trumpet the extension of rights to all persons and prohibit discrimination.

As of 1997, over 130 nations have ratified these covenants. The United States, however, has ratified only the ICCPR, and even that with many reservations, or formal exceptions, to its full compliance. (See From Concept to Convention: How Human Rights Law Evolves).

Subsequent Human Rights Documents

In addition to the covenants in the International Bill of Human Rights, the United Nations has adopted more than 20 principal treaties further elaborating human rights. These include conventions to prevent and prohibit specific abuses like torture and genocide and to protect especially vulnerable populations, such as refugees (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979), and children (Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). As of 1997 the United States has ratified only these conventions:

  • In Europe, the Americas, and Africa, regional documents for the protection and promotion of human rights extend the International Bill of Human Rights. For example, African states have created their own Charter of Human and People’s Rights (1981), and Muslim states have created the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990). The dramatic changes in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America since 1989 have powerfully demonstrated a surge in demand for respect of human rights. Popular movements in China, Korea, and other Asian nations reveal a similar commitment to these principles.

The Role of Nongovernmental Organizations

Globally the champions of human rights have most often been citizens, not government officials. In particular, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have played a cardinal role in focusing the international community on human rights issues. For example, NGO activities surrounding the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, drew unprecedented attention to serious violations of the human rights of women. NGOs such as Amnesty International, the Antislavery Society, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, Human Rights Watch, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, and Survivors International monitor the actions of governments and pressure them to act according to human rights principles.

Government officials who understand the human rights framework can also effect far reaching change for freedom. Many United States Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter have taken strong stands for human rights. In other countries leaders like Nelson Mandela and Vaclev Havel have brought about great changes under the banner of human rights.

Human rights is an idea whose time has come. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a call to freedom and justice for people throughout the world. Every day governments that violate the rights of their citizens are challenged and called to task. Every day human beings worldwide mobilize and confront injustice and inhumanity. Like drops of water falling on a rock, they wear down the forces of oppression and move the world closer to achieving the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Part 2: The Right to Know Your Rights

Why Human Rights Education?

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION declares a commitment to those human rights expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the UN Covenants, and the United States Bill of Rights. It asserts the responsibility to respect, protect, and promote the rights of all people.

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION promotes democratic principles. It examines human rights issues without bias and from diverse perspectives through a variety of educational practices.

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION helps to develop the communication skills and informed critical thinking essential to a democracy. It provides multicultural and historical perspectives on the universal struggle for justice and dignity.

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION engages the heart as well as the mind. It challenges students to ask what human rights mean to them personally and encourages them to translate caring into informed, nonviolent action.

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION affirms the interdependence of the human family. It promotes understanding of the complex global forces that create abuses, as well as the ways in which abuses can be abolished and avoided.

An Introduction to
Human Rights Education

What is Human Rights Education?

Simply put, human rights education is all learning that develops the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights.

The United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) has defined Human Rights Education as “training, dissemination, and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights through the imparting of knowledge and skills and the molding of attitudes which are directed to:

(a) The strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;

(b) The full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;

(c) The promotion of understanding, respect, gender equality, and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and racial, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups;

(d) The enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free society;

(e) The furtherance of the activities of the United Nations for the Maintenance of Peace.” (Adapted from the Plan of Action of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), paragraph 2)

During this Decade, the UN is urging and supporting all member states to make knowledge about human rights available to everyone through both the formal school system and through popular and adult education.

Human Rights Education as a Human Right

Education in human rights is itself a fundamental human right and also a responsibility: the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) exhorts “every individual and every organ of society” to “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) declares that a government “may not stand in the way of people learning about [their rights].”

Although news reports refer to human rights every day, “human rights literacy” is not widespread in the United States. Students of law and international relations or political science may study human rights in a university setting, but most people receive no education, formally or informally, about human rights. Even human rights activists usually acquire their knowledge and skills by self-teaching and direct experience.

When Americans say, “I’ve got my rights,” they usually think of those civil and political rights defined in the US Bill of Rights, which includes freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, and the right to a fair trial. Few, however, realize that social, economic, and cultural rights such as health care, housing, or a living wage, are also human rights guaranteed in the UDHR.

People who do not know their rights are more vulnerable to having them abused and often lack the language and conceptual framework to effectively advocate for them. Growing consensus around the world recognizes education for and about human rights as essential. It can contribute to the building of free, just, and peaceful societies. Human rights education is also increasingly recognized as an effective strategy to prevent human rights abuses.

Rights, Responsibilities, and Action

Integral to learning about one’s human rights is learning about the responsibilities that accompany all rights. Just as human rights belong to both individuals and society as a whole, the responsibility to respect, defend, and promote human rights is both individual and collective. The Preamble of the UDHR, for example, calls not only on governments to promote human rights, but also on “every individual and every organ of society.” Human rights education provides the knowledge and awareness needed to meet this responsibility.

The responsibilities of all citizens in a democratic society are inseparable from the responsibility to promote human rights. To flourish, both democracy and human rights require people’s active participation. Human rights education includes learning the skills of advocacy – to speak and act every day in the name of human rights.

Human rights education also provides a basis for conflict resolution and the promotion of social order. Rights themselves often clash, such as when one person’s commitment to public safety conflicts with another’s freedom of expression. As a value system based on respect and the equality and dignity of all people, human rights can create a framework for analyzing and resolving such differences. Human rights education also teaches the skills of negotiation, mediation, and consensus building.

The Goals of Human Rights Education

Human rights education teaches both about human rights and for human rights.

Its goal is to help people understand human rights, value human rights, and take responsibility for respecting, defending, and promoting human rights. An important outcome of human rights education is empowerment, a process through which people and communities increase their control of their own lives and the decisions that affect them. The ultimate goal of human rights education is people working together to bring about human rights, justice, and dignity for all.

Education about human rights provides people with information about human rights. It includes learning –

about the inherent dignity of all people and their right to be treated with respect

about human rights principles, such as the universality, indivisibility, and interdependence of human rights

about how human rights promote participation in decision making and the peaceful resolution of conflicts

about the history and continuing development of human rights

about international law, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Convention on the Rights of the Child

about regional, national, state, and local law that reinforces international human rights law

about using human rights law to protect human rights and to call violators to account for their actions

about human rights violations such as torture, genocide, or violence against women and the social, economic, political, ethnic, and gender forces which cause them

about the persons and agencies that are responsible for promoting, protecting, and respecting human rights

Education for human rights helps people feel the importance of human rights, internalize human rights values, and integrate them into the way they live. These human rights values and attitudes include –

“strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” (UDHR Article 30.2)

nurturing respect for others, self-esteem, and hope

understanding the nature of human dignity and respecting the dignity of others

empathizing with those whose rights are violated and feeling a sense of solidarity with them

recognizing that the enjoyment of human rights by all citizens is a precondition to a just and humane society

perceiving the human rights dimension of civil, social, political, economic, and cultural issues and conflicts both in the US and other countries

valuing non-violence and believing that cooperation is better than conflict

Education for human rights also gives people a sense of responsibility for respecting and defending human rights and empowers them through skills to take appropriate action. These skills for action include –

recognizing that human rights may be promoted and defended on an individual, collective, and institutional level

developing critical understanding of life situations

analyzing situations in moral terms

realizing that unjust situations can be improved

recognizing a personal and social stake in the defense of human rights

analyzing factors that cause human rights violations

knowing about and being able to use global, regional, national, and local human rights instruments and mechanisms for the protection of human rights

strategizing appropriate responses to injustice

acting to promote and defend human rights

Who Needs Human Rights Education?

Human rights should be part of everyone’s education. However, certain groups have a particular need for human rights education: some because they are especially vulnerable to human rights abuses, others because they hold official positions and upholding human rights is their responsibility, still others because of their ability to influence and educate. Among these groups are the following:

Administrators of Justice:

  • law enforcement personnel, including police and security forces
  • prison officials
  • lawyers, judges, and prosecutors

Other Government and Legislative Officials:

  • members of the legislature
  • public officials, elected and appointed
  • members of the military

Other Professionals:

  • educators
  • social workers
  • health professionals
  • journalists and media representatives

Organizations, Associations, and Groups

  • women’s organizations
  • community activists and civic leaders
  • minority groups
  • members of the business community
  • trade unionists
  • indigenous peoples
  • religious leaders and others with a special interest in social justice issues
  • children and youth
  • students at all levels of education
  • refugees and displaced persons
  • people of all sexual orientations
  • poor people, whether in cities or rural areas
  • people with disabilities
  • migrant workers

Frequently Asked Questions About Human Rights Education

We learn about the Bill of Rights in school. Isn’t that enough?

The rights contained in the US Bill of Rights are mainly civil and political rights, such as the right to a fair trial, to assembly, to free speech, and worship. Human rights, however, also include social, economic, and cultural rights that are not included in the US Constitution or Bill of Rights, such as the rights to adequate housing, health care, and a living wage.

Human rights also reflect a broader value system than the Bill of Rights and other sources of “legal rights” in the United States. Human rights are not related to citizenship in a particular country. Human rights also include how individuals relate to each other, not just how people and governments relate. Every human being has the right to know about and enjoy these rights.

How can I teach human rights when I have never studied about them? What if I can’t answer people’s questions?

Few of us had any opportunity to study about human rights during our formal schooling. This is part of the problem. The foundation of all learning is inspiring interest, curiosity, and personal connection to the subject matter. Research shows people of all ages remember and integrate best when they participate in their learning. You don’t have to know all the answers to facilitate human rights education; you do have to know how to help people, including yourself, look for answers. “Experts” can evoke passivity, boredom or a sense of incompetence, especially if they present human rights from a strictly legal perspective. You need not be an expert with a legal background. You do need to be willing to be part of the learning process. Therefore the most effective educational techniques in human rights education, as reflected in this book, offer a high level of active participation, using techniques such as role plays, debates, discussion, drama, and small group work.

How can knowing about human rights make any difference in the work I do in my community?

Many people are engaged in human rights work without knowing it! Because Americans usually define “rights” as those civil and political rights guaranteed in the US Bill of Rights and other laws, many people working for social, economic, and cultural rights do not recognize that they too are human rights advocates. As a director of a battered women’s shelter who attended a human rights training observed, “Until today I never thought of myself as a human rights worker. Now I want every woman who comes to the shelter to know that she has a human right not to be beaten. And I want our organization’s brochure to state this too – right at the top of the first page.”

Organizing around human rights provides a common vision and value system. Rather than working in isolation from each other, people working on social justice issues can unite around the shared framework of human rights. In this way, once understood and claimed, human rights can serve as a powerful tool to spark hope for the future and effect change.

How do you know human rights education works? Does it really change attitudes and behavior? What proof is there?

Because human rights are a new frontier in education, little research is yet available. Useful analogies can be drawn, however, to law-related education, values education, character education, global education, and anti-bias education. Although measuring changes in information levels is easy, changes in attitude are difficult to quantify, especially as they can take place over a period of years. Can we test for an increased respect for human dignity? Clearly this is an area where much work is needed. Many human rights educators have witnessed first-hand the power of using the human rights framework to change students’ attitudes and behaviors. One social worker engaged in human rights education for the past five years commented, “I have seen my students become respectful individuals who have hope and commitment to making the world a better place.”

How do you teach human rights to people whose rights have been abused (e.g., the homeless, people in prison, people with disabilities, refugees)?

No matter what your audience, always draw on people’s experience. If human rights education doesn’t address their lives, it won’t matter much. Always tailor what you teach to your audience.

On the other hand, in an effort to achieve relevance, don’t neglect the interdependence and indivisibility of rights. Refugees, for example, not only need to know about their rights as refugees but also about the full spectrum of rights (e.g., their rights to education, shelter, freedom of movement, and self-determination).

Isn’t human rights education just for schools?

Just as all people everywhere have the same human rights, so people of every age need to know and understand about their rights. The content and goals are much the same at all ages; only the methodologies vary. A young child learns somewhat differently from a teenager, and a judge or a resident in a battered women’s shelter learns somewhat differently from a union organizer, a social worker, or a police officer. Although an informed facilitator can be helpful, adult groups can educate themselves about human rights using activities like those in Part III, “Introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Emphasize for all age groups –

  • people’s lived experience
  • interactive methodologies rather than lecture, which often results in passive listening
  • rights as evolving ideas that are shaped by people’s needs
  • rights can sometimes conflict, requiring thoughtful evaluation
  • universality, i.e., that human rights transcend any political, religious, or cultural perspective

How does one advocate for human rights and still maintain respect for cultural, religious, and other differences?

Human rights are universal. On the one hand they apply to everyone regardless of culture and beliefs. On the other hand, they guarantee the right to practice and advocate for those differences.

By their very nature human rights are subject to conflict. One person’s conscientiously held belief (e.g., that one race is superior to all others) can violate another’s human dignity and human rights. Human rights education includes exploring solutions to these kinds of conflicts, both those that occur in the local community (e.g., the right to free speech vs. the right to protection from “hate speech”) and those that occur on a global scale (e.g., the right to practice one’s culture vs. protection from harmful traditional practices). Resolutions are seldom easy and sometimes impossible. Nevertheless, placing such conflicts in a human rights framework is essential to their full understanding. And resolution can only come through attitudes of equality and respect and through the skills of negotiation, mediation, and consensus building, all fundamental to human rights education.

Where do human rights fit into an already over-crowded school curriculum? Especially into subjects other than social studies?

Human rights education works best when woven into the fabric of existing curriculum. It’s a way of thinking about the world, not just subject matter to cover. Teachers can find opportunities everywhere to engage and challenge their students about human rights.

Ideally human rights are taught across the school curriculum. Although social studies classes make the most obvious fit, many subjects can be viewed from a human rights perspective. 

Isn’t human rights education too political for schools?

Knowing about human rights makes people better able to participate in the social and political life of their communities. However, it is important to distinguish between political and analytical skills and party politics and political ideology. Educators have a great responsibility not to become propagandists or to push students towards a specific political position or party. Human rights education must be exploratory, open-ended, and problem solving. It should also call on the learner to identify and strive to eliminate injustice.

Won’t human rights topics distress people?

Human rights education should not focus only on rights abuses, which can be disturbing and dismaying to people of all ages. While human rights education may include teaching about violations, it also provides a value system that condemns those actions and upholds human dignity. Human rights education also offers people the skills to take action to prevent such abuse, as well as to advocate for the realization of human rights.

Indeed, educators need to shield children and some adults, such as former victims of abuse, from the brutality of human rights violations (e.g., Amnesty’s Children’s Edition Urgent Action letter writing appeals edit out explicit details of abuse). However, everyone can be inspired by the vision of a world built upon principles of human dignity, respect, and justice where such abuses do not occur.

What’s the difference between human rights education and moral education, peace education, law-related education, development education, multicultural education, global studies, citizenship education, or conflict resolution? Where does human rights education fit in?

These different forms of education share many common features; all include acquiring knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Human rights education, however, provides a shared value system where all intersect. For example, peace education incorporates human dignity and the right to peace and security. Multicultural education reflects the human rights principles of nondiscrimination and participation in one’s own language, culture, and religion. Law-related education enables students to measure US law against international human rights standards.

Human rights should be part of all these educational movements!

Isn’t human rights education anti-American? Doesn’t it criticize our country?

The UDHR set a standard by which to assess the human rights achievements of all countries, including the United States. No country has a perfect record. Human rights education acknowledges the successes, identifies the shortcomings, and encourages citizens to work for improvement. In regard to many human rights, the US is an acknowledged leader (e.g., freedom of speech, press, religion); in other areas clear deficiencies exist (e.g., health care, equal education, housing).

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