This section introduces the concepts and terms used by the UN to define and discuss human rights. These include the ideas of rights holders and duty bearers; respect, protect, fulfill; and immediate vs. progressive obligations.
Further reading: OHCHR – What are Human Rights?
Human rights are universal, inalienable, interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.
Universal: Rights apply equally to all humans at all times, regardless of any person’s individual characteristics.
Inalienable: They cannot be taken away from any person or group. There are exceptions in the case of criminal punishment or international sanctions, but these must follow legal procedures and even so there are strict limits on which rights can be temporarily restricted.
Interrelated and interrelated: Individual rights do not exist separately from each other, and how much a person can enjoy one right is directly connected to whether their other rights are being realized. For example: the right to vote and to participate in the political process is deeply connected to the right to education. A person who does not have the right to vote is not helped by an education that teaches them about the political process. Similarly, the right to vote is not useful to a person who does not have enough education to make an informed choice or is too distracted by hunger to pay attention to politics. This doesn’t mean that rights that are not useful to a person can be taken away. Instead, each right should be supported and promoted so everyone can fully enjoy and make use of their rights.
Indivisible: The improvement of one right cannot come at the expense of another. Civil and political rights are often valued more highly than economic, social and cultural rights, but each right is considered to be equal. Also, some governments try to justify the denial of one right by saying that they are focusing on the improvement of another (e.g. limiting political rights to focus on economic development), but this is not acceptable.
Further reading: UNFPR – Human Rights Principles
For each right, there are rights holders and duty bearers. Rights holders are the people who say that their rights are being denied or restricted somehow. These are usually individuals or small groups. Duty bearers are the people who are required to help the rights holders realize those rights. These are usually larger groups or people in positions of power, such as businesses, landlords or governments. When a person’s rights are being denied, we have to determine both how to improve the situation (i.e. what the person is entitled to), and who is responsible for improving the situation.
It is important to keep in mind that the duty bearers are not necessarily those that are responsible for creating the situation. Determining who caused a rights violation is only helpful if that helps in ensuring that the violation will not happen again. If the violation is criminal in nature, then determining guilt is the responsibility of governments and the legal system, but punishing such a crime in itself rarely leads to resolving the rights situation.
For example, if a certain industry is known for having lax safety standards and many workplace accidents, then responsibility for causing individual accidents lies with the particular company involved, and a worker and a company should handle compensation, or civil or criminal charges. From a human rights perspective, however, individual businesses and industry associations are all responsibility for improving their improving safety standards, and local government is responsible for creating appropriate safety regulations and making sure they are put into practice. This additional role of the government is called the responsibility to ‘respect, protect, and fulfill’.
Further reading: UNFPR – The Human Rights-Based Approach
In most cases the party responsible for addressing a rights issue is a larger organization such as a corporation or a government, as described above, but governments have special responsibilities related to human rights on top of this. UN rights legislation refers to this as the responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfill. Governments have the responsibility to respect each person’s human rights by not engaging in any rights violations, to protect those rights by preventing others from violating those rights, and to fulfill those rights by working to help each individual enjoy their rights.
Further reading: UNFPR – The Human Rights-Based Approach
Within the responsibilities of governments outlined above, a further distinction is made between a government’s immediate obligations and progressive obligations.
Immediate obligations are those that a state must fulfill immediately, such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to vote, and the right to work. These rights are mostly related to the responsibilities to respect and protect, but under the responsibility to fulfill, states are required to promote rights by creating policies that support rights and providing the resources required for these systems. Enforcement of these obligations often comes through the legal system.
Unlike immediate obligations, progressive obligations are those that may be worked towards if a government does not have enough resources to help all its citizens fully realize those rights. These are typically related to rights that are under the economic, cultural and social rights classification. In a developing country, for instance, these may include the rights to health or education, since creating systems to provide these services to every citizen, even in remote areas, can take much time and resources to be developed. This is not a license for a government to ignore certain groups, however. This simply means that monitoring agencies understand if not everyone has full access modern healthcare at all times, for instance. Even if a government states that it is not able to fully provide every right, it must still maintain a “minimum essential level” and show that it is making significant efforts and using all available resources to work towards full enjoyment of all rights.
Further reading: OHCHR – Key Concepts on ESCRs