Human rights: universal, inalienable and indivisible

Human rights are universal, inherent to every individual without discrimination; inalienable, meaning that no one can take them away; indivisible and interrelated, with all rights having equal status and being necessary to protect human dignity.

On 10 December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This declaration was an effort to ensure that the abuses and atrocities against human dignity – such as those perpetrated by the Nazis – would never take place again. 

Drafted at the onset of the Cold War, it was a fruitful historical compromise between the Western bloc, that pushed for civil and political rights – generally freedom from government interference such as freedom of religion,  freedom from torture or equality before the law – and the Eastern bloc and countries under colonial rule - who championed economic, social and cultural rights. They are enabling rights that need the provision of services to be fulfilled, such as the right to an adequate standard of living, right to education or right to work. Human rights are based on the principles of equality, non-discrimination and dignity, transforming moral claims into rights to confront abuses and tyranny. 

The UDHR, together with the 2 covenants - the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - make up the International Bill of Rights.

Universal and inalienable

The principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. This means that we are all equally entitled to our human rights. This principle, as first emphasized in the UDHR, is repeated in many international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions.

Human rights are inalienable. They should not be taken away, except in specific situations and according to due process. For example, the right to liberty may be restricted if a person is found guilty of a crime by a court of law.

Indivisible and interdependent

All human rights are indivisible and interdependent.  This means that one set of rights cannot be enjoyed fully without the other. For example, making progress in civil and political rights makes it easier to exercise economic, social and cultural rights. Similarly, violating economic, social and cultural rights can negatively affect many other rights.

Equal and non-discriminatory

Article 1 of the UDHR states: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Freedom from discrimination, set out in Article 2, is what ensures this equality.   

Non-discrimination cuts across all international human rights law. This principle is present in all major human rights treaties. It also provides the central theme of 2 core instruments: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  

Both rights and obligations

All States have ratified at least 1 of the 9 core human rights treaties, as well as 1 of the 9 optional protocols. 80% of States have ratified 4 or more. This means that States have obligations and duties under international law to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

  • The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights.
  • The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses.
  • The obligation to fulfill means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.

Human Rights Day is observed by the international community every year on 10 December. It commemorates the day in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.