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Human Rights for All


What are human rights?

Human rights are commonly understood as being those rights which are inherent to the human being. The concept of human rights acknowledges that every single human being is entitled to enjoy his or her human rights without distinction as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Human rights are legally guaranteed by human rights law, protecting individuals and groups against actions that interfere with fundamental freedoms and human dignity. They are expressed in treaties, customary international law, bodies of principles and other sources of law. Human rights law places an obligation on States to act in a particular way and prohibits States from engaging in specified activities. However, the law does not establish human rights. Human rights are inherent entitlements which come to every person as a consequence of being human.

Rows of shackles inside Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, site of the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Security Prison S-21.

Rows of shackles inside Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, site of the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Security Prison S-21.
UN Photo/Mark Garten.

Treaties and other sources of law generally serve to protect formally the rights of individuals and groups against actions or abandonment of actions by Governments which interfere with the enjoyment of their human rights.

The following are some of the most important characteristics of human rights:

Video: Human Rights Defenders

International human rights law

The formal expression of inherent human rights is through international human rights law. A series of international human rights treaties and other instruments have emerged since 1945 conferring legal form on inherent human rights. The creation of the United Nations provided an ideal forum for the development and adoption of international human rights instruments. Other instruments have been adopted at a regional level reflecting the particular human rights concerns of the region. Most States have also adopted constitutions and other laws which formally protect basic human rights. Often the language used by States is drawn directly from the international human rights instruments.

International human rights law consists mainly of treaties and custom as well as, inter alia, declarations, guidelines and principles.


A treaty is an agreement by States to be bound by particular rules. International treaties have different designations such as covenants, charters, protocols, conventions, accords and agreements. A treaty is legally binding on those States which have consented to be bound by the provisions of the treaty – in other words are party to the treaty.

Indigenous people attending UN conference. Photo Jean-Marc Ferre.

Indigenous people attending UN conference.
Photo: Jean-Marc Ferre.

A State can become a party to a treaty by ratification, accession or succession. Ratification is a State’s formal expression of consent to be bound by a treaty. Only a State that has previously signed the treaty (during the period when the treaty was open for signature) can ratify it. Ratification consists of two procedural acts: on the domestic level, it requires approval by the appropriate constitutional organ (usually the head of State or parliament). On the international level, pursuant to the relevant provision of the treaty in question, the instrument of ratification shall be formally transmitted to the depositary which may be a State or an international organization such as the United Nations.

Accession entails consent to be bound by a State that has not previously signed the instrument. States ratify treaties both before and after the treaty has entered into force. The same applies to accession.

A State may also become party to a treaty by succession, which takes place by virtue of a specific treaty provision or by declaration. Most treaties are not self-executing. In some States treaties are superior to domestic law, whereas in other States treaties are given constitutional status, and in yet others only certain provisions of a treaty are incorporated in domestic law.

A State may, in ratifying a treaty, enter reservations to that treaty, indicating that, while it consents to be bound by most of the provisions, it does not agree to be bound by certain specific provisions. However, a reservation may not defeat the object and purpose of the treaty. Further, even if a State is not a party to a treaty or if it has entered reservations thereto, that State may still be bound by those treaty provisions which have become part of customary international law or constitute peremptory rules of international law, such as the prohibition against torture.


Indigenous rights declaration
endorsed by States

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has received backing from the United States in 2010, the last of four UN Member States that had opposed it. By adopting the Declaration, States have committed to recognizing indigenous peoples rights under international law, with the right to be respected as distinct peoples and the right to determine their own development according to their culture, priorities, and customary laws.

Customary international law (or simply “custom”) is the term used to describe a general and consistent practice followed by States deriving from a sense of legal obligation. Thus, for example, while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not in itself a binding treaty, some of its provisions have the character of customary international law.

Declarations, resolutions etc. adopted by United Nations organs

General norms of international law – principles and practices that most States would agree on – are often stated in declarations, proclamations, standard rules, guidelines, recommendations and principles. While no binding legal effect on States ensues, they nevertheless represent a broad consensus on the part of the international community and, therefore, have a strong and undeniable moral force in terms of the practice of States in their conduct of international relations. The value of such instruments rests on their recognition and acceptance by a large number of States, and, even without binding legal effect, they may be seen as declaratory of broadly accepted principles within the international community.

Core Human Rights Instruments


All ratifications as of 1 January 2011