UN Photos/Artwork by Octavio Roth

HUMAN RIGHTS: moral and legal norms covering the fundamental freedoms and protections to which all individuals are entitled by virtue of their humanity.

Human rights became a central element of international relations when they were enunciated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by UN General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948. The UNDHR provides political, moral and legal rights to protect all human beings and covers liberty, equality, security, due process, and social rights. Some fundamental human rights such as the right to life are recognized as customary under international law. However, there are ongoing debates on whether economic, social, and cultural rights should be considered universal "human rights." There is also debate over the priority of some rights over others and the conflict between group rights and individual rights



1. In Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe, Jytte Klausen notes that European Muslims were upset about the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammed, but at the same time they said they valued the right to freedom of expression. Can the tensions between the right to religious freedom and the right to freedom of expression be reconciled? Are there any circumstances that would justify imposing some limits to freedom of expression?

2. Do nation-states have a duty to protect human rights beyond their own borders? What is the role of NGOs in the promotion of human rights? Is the UN the appropriate institution to promote and to enforce these rights or should another international agency assume this responsibility?

3. Discuss the efficiency of various methods of promoting human rights, such as monitoring, reporting, political pressure, economic sanctions, trade preferences, and intervention. Which of these, or what combination of these methods produce the best results? Consider, for example the use of sanctions against former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and South Africa. Think of a recent human rights crisis and discuss what actions were taken by the international community to resolve it. What were the results?

4. In World Poverty and Human Rights Thomas Pogge argues that world poverty represents a clear violation of a basic human right. He says that "world poverty is an ongoing harm we inflict seems completely incredible to most citizens of the affluent countries." Do you agree with his assesment that citizens of developed countries are indirectly violating the rights of the poor? Where does responsibility for world poverty rest—with individuals, governments, corporations, or global institutional arrangements? What are the most efficent ways to fight poverty?

5. Consider the remarks in Ending Tyranny in Iraq: A Debate. On one hand, Tesón argues that the war in Iraq constitutes a humanitarian intervention because it rids the world of a dictator. On the other hand, Roth contends that trying to justify it in humanitarian terms has given intervention a bad name. In your opinion, was the war in Iraq a humanitarian intervention? Why or why not?

6. Further discussion questions on cultural rights and environmental rights can be found in the respective issues of Human Rights Dialogue.



Selected Carnegie Council Materials

Human Rights Dialogue
Study Guide to Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms"
Special Report: "Ten Years Since Rwanda"
Joanne Bauer, The Challenge to International Human Rights
Robert F. Drinan, The Mobilization of Shame
Andrew Kuper, Peter Singer, Global Responsibilities: How can Multinational Corporations Deliver on Human Rights?
Kenneth Roth, Three Challenges to the Human Rights Movement
William Shulz, American Power and Human Rights
Joelle Tanguy and Fiona Terry, Humanitarian Responsibility and Committed Action.
Thomas G. Weiss, Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights: United Nations, 1948
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: United Nations, 1966
International Human Rights (American Society of International Law)
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations—Human Rights
United Nations Documentation Research Guide: Special Topics: Human Rights
Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch  
Responsibility to Protect


Further Reading

Alston, Philip, ed. Human Rights Law (New York: New York University Press, 1996).
Bauer, Joanne and Bell, Daniel, eds. The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Buergenthal, Thomas. International Human Rights in a Nutshell, 3rd ed (St. Paul, MN.: West Pub. Co., 2002).
Donnelly, Jack. International Human Rights. 3rd ed (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2006).
Falk, Richard. Human Rights Horizons: The Pursuit of Justice in a Globalizing World (New York: Routledge, 2000).
Forsythe, David P. Human Rights and World Politics, 2nd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
Hannum, Hurst. Guide to International Human Rights Practice, 3rd ed. (Ardsley, NY.: Transnational, 1999).
Lillich, Richard and Hurst Hannum. International Human Rights: Problems of Law, Policy and Practice, 3rd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1995).
Wellman, Carl. "The Universal Declaration—Ambiguous or Amphibious?" APA Newsletters 97, No 2 (Spring, 1998).