Why do We Need to Set Down Human Rights?

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written, it was controversial. No one had ever tried to set down a full list of rights that applied universally. Looking back at it now, many of us would be surprised by some of the debates, especially if we have been raised with the language of human rights.

Below are three reasons why human rights are necessary.

  1. Moral vision

    We need to set down human rights because they give us a moral vision of human nature and human dignity. They create a vision of what life would look like if everybody’s basic humanity was equally respected and protected. If our needs for survival and protection were met, then we could focus on developing our individual and collective potential through educational and cultural activities.

    The reality is that war, violence, intolerance and poverty around the world result in daily violations of human dignity. Human rights remind us of what is possible and what is due to people, even in the worst of situations.

  2. Political vision

    Human rights also give us a political vision or an agenda for change. If we evaluate our own schools, communities or countries against the standards set out in the Declaration, we can develop an agenda for social and political change. New policies and procedures, new development projects and new laws can be constructed in order to try to improve the achievement of human rights for all.

    No Commonwealth country can really claim to have fully implemented human rights – there is always room for improvements, like reducing the inequalities between the very poor and the very wealthy, or between women and men.

  3. Protection

    We need human rights for protection when our legal rights are violated by the state, and to encourage justice and fairness within our societies. Ironically, we may be most aware of our human rights when they are being threatened or denied. Human rights can be matters of life and death.
    For example, in many countries during times of unrest the police have been used to detain opponents of the government or to confiscate their property, even though such actions may be against the written laws.

Because of these three widely-accepted reasons, human rights are occasionally protected by raising both national and international awareness of human rights violations. This can help draw attention to and resolve such situations, by creating moral pressure on governments. This kind of strategy has been successfully used by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. During the period of Ian Smith’s illegal occupation of Southern Rhodesia, Amnesty International ran a concerted campaign against the mistreatment of black activists by the state.

In the next section we look at some other ways in which human rights are protected.