What’s a Human Right?

“To deny people their human rights, is to challenge their very humanity.”

— Nelson Mandela

By John van Bladel

While at an Amnesty International meeting I attended a workshop on Human Rights in Education. The room was packed with people from many walks of life: students, educators, survivors of human rights violations, and the general public.

The facilitator began by asking a seemingly simple question: “what’s a human right?” A lively discussion ensued as we struggled to develop a definition.

Numerous perspectives emerged and we agreed on some basic tenets including the need for raising awareness about the topic by placing greater emphasis on it in our educational systems. It is from similar discussions that Human Rights Educators USA was created committed to promoting human dignity, justice, and peace by supporting Human Rights Education in the United States. 

So where do we begin the discussion? A good starting point is the U.S. Bill of Rights, the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution. Next we include Amendments 13-15.

All invite wide variations in interpretation as we have seen repeatedly throughout our history. How do we comprehend these Amendments in an ever changing world? Another important document is the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed on Dec. 10, 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly.

It is composed of 30 Articles and offers fundamental human rights to be applied universally to all the world’s peoples.

This is a more detailed article than the United States Bill of Rights and important as a foundation for understanding human rights. These two documents provide a solid base for starting a dialogue in the classroom. And don’t neglect Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposed Second Bill of Rights. It will add another dimension to the discussion.

Globally there has been gradual movement towards equality for all people.

After long struggles the Caste System in India and Apartheid in South Africa ended.

In the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement fostered greater equality. But despite progress inequity still exists.

Though we are moving in the direction of universal human rights for all progress is uneven and we still make exceptions. This requires continuing efforts towards achieving a more just and equitable world. Black Lives Matter continues to address systemic racism.

The Human Rights Campaign envisions a world where all members of the LGBTQ family are afforded equal rights and treatment.

The #MeToo movement helped bring awareness to the sexual harassment and assault so many, primarily women, have experienced.

But institutionalized discrimination remains part of our cultures. We often support, explicitly and/or implicitly, unequal treatment of people or groups, based on race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and religion.

So what can we agree upon when it comes to human rights?

Most people agree clean water and air are a right.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are essential but open to interpretation. How about the right to equal pay for men and women, affordable education, employment that pays enough to own a home, health insurance, the right to bear arms, freedom of speech, Social Security?

If we can define these concepts then we can begin a civil, informed discussion, free of rhetoric, in an attempt to understand the political, economic, social, ideological, and ethical factors that influence our perception of human rights.

Then comes the hard part, to feel what human rights are.

To look into the eyes of the homeless, perhaps a family who fled a country with only what they could carry to avoid being killed because of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

To sit in a doctor’s office and experience what it is like to have minimal health care coverage while facing a devastating illness.

To read or watch the numerous media outlets detail the death and suffering in Yemen and Myanmar where some are being denied their basic right to live.

Human rights are not just words written on a paper. They are the daily, collective experience of us all.


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