Human Rights: what they are and what they do

On International Human Rights Day, find out how universal principles are essential in guaranteeing a dignified life for all people

Brasília - Marcha das Mulheres Negras Contra o Racismo, a Violência e pelo Bem Viver em Brasília, reúne mulheres de todos os estados e regiões do Brasil (Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil) Brasília - Marcha das Mulheres Negras Contra o Racismo, a Violência e pelo Bem Viver em Brasília, reúne mulheres de todos os estados e regiões do Brasil (Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil)

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights” it says in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. To transform this universal principle into measures and policies for a dignified life is the principal duty of governments of all political and ideological stands. While tracking, demanding action and denouncing violations is the principal objective of human rights activists. Human rights are for all people and serve to guarantee our lives. 

On International Human Rights Day – celebrated on Friday (10) – find out what these rights are and what they do:

What are human rights? 

Human rights are ones that we have simply because we are humans. It is that simple. They are rights that cannot be restricted or taken away. They must be guaranteed. Human rights must be the same for all people, irrespective of gender, nationality, ethnic origin, colour, religion, language or any other condition. As they are universal, no type of discrimination can be applied in their application. 

There are a variety of human rights and their purpose is to guarantee the dignity and citizenship of all people. They range from the right to life, to rights that make life worth living, such as the right to food, education, work, health and freedom, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in regional legislation and in a number of international treaties.  

Do human rights protect some people more than others?

Through misinformation, some people believe that the purpose of human rights is to protect only certain groups of people. Actually though, the fact is that because of social, economic and political structures that create inequality, segments of the population face more difficulties in guaranteeing their rights. This creates the need for the struggle and mobilisation of social movements, civil society organisations, the press and politicians, to prevent these rights being restricted or taken away. 

When black activists fight for antiracism public policies, for example, the objective is not to establish privileges for this population, but to create the means to reduce inequality between white and black people, so that everyone can be equal. It is important to remember that there is a very real difference in the access black and white people have to rights, like education, health and housing and this has been backed up by numerous studies and research, the explanation being the structural racism that exists in Brazil.  

What role do human rights play in our daily lives?

Many fundamental rights are present in our daily lives and sometimes we are unaware of the struggles that took place to secure them. There are many of them and they are all inseparable and interdependent: the right to the universal vote, to free healthcare, to express an opinion that is either against or in favour of a particular government, the free expression of faith and the right to paid holiday. They range from the Covid-19 vaccine being available free of charge in health centres to mechanisms to combat the torture of people in prison. This is all part of a wide-ranging complex system of human rights that all people must have access to, simply because they are humans. In practice, these rights guarantee our lives as individuals and as a society. 

How are human rights guaranteed?

Guarantees are ensured by means of international agreements and treaties on human rights which are signed by countries as well as internal legislation. In the case of Brazil, the 1988 Constitution was named the “Citizens´ Constitution” precisely because it carries elements that guarantee rights that the previous Constitution did not. 

One example of an international treaty is the  Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No 169) of the ILO  (International Labour Organization), a UN body for issues concerning work. It was ratified by Brazil in 2003 and determines that any activity that impacts on the lives and territories of indigenous and traditional peoples must undergo free, prior and informed consultation. It is an international benchmark that is applicable in Brazil. 

For example, at a national level, the Federal Constitution guarantees the freedom of beliefs and practices. Therefore, practices of religious racism and religious intolerance must be rejected and penalised. That which is set out in the constitution and in legislation must be demanded of the state. 

Why is it important to defend human rights?

It is always possible to broaden the application of human rights, on the basis of international treaties and the Federal Constitution. After all, societies change, new social groups gain visibility and others start to be more forceful in their demands. In this sense, states must respect, protect and fulfil human rights norms. Citizens in turn, as individuals or within organisations, must always be alert so that no-one’s rights are violated or denied. This is important in guaranteeing a fairer more egalitarian society in which all people can grow and build their lives safely and freely. 

Why does democracy not exist without human rights?

Democracy was born of the very concept that people must have the right to participate in the political decisions that directly affect them. Moreover, no government should have absolute power or act in a discretionary way towards particular groups of people. Human rights define the boundaries of state power, while protecting the fundamental freedom of citizens. Without human rights, any government can become tyrannical.

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