The concept of human rights is actually relatively recent and our current standard for human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was only published in 1948. But why are human rights important in the first place? Human rights are important because they ensure that each person has their basic rights of freedom, dignity, education, equal opportunity, health and justice protected. They protect people from bias and provide a support for fighting corruption and injustice. Even though most nations have adopted the Universal Declaration as a guide, there are still millions of people who suffer human rights violations every day. The human rights outlined in the Universal Declaration give individuals, advocacy organizations, governments and legal entities the ability to challenge, hold responsible and prosecute those who infringe upon those rights (United Nations, Universal).
Human rights are important for a number of reasons that, today, are often taken for granted. They protect vulnerable populations such as immigrants, prisoners, children, minorities and disabled people. Until recently, there were few, if any laws to protect these populations, resulting in unfair and exploitive circumstances, discrimination and lack of societal structure and support. Additionally, human rights ensure equal employment opportunities. Today in many countries it’s illegal for companies to hire people based on gender, race, sexuality or physical disabilities which opens up employment opportunities to segments of the population who might have previously had difficulty gaining employment due to the preferences and bias of employers (Kalin 29). Human rights also protect religious freedom, providing support for people to worship as they wish. It is a violation of human rights for members of the dominant religion to persecute those who worship a different religion. Such persecution has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. For example, the Hindu persecution of the Muslims in the northern Indian state of Kashmir and the Chinese persecution of the Tibetans are tragic examples of human rights violations (Cato Institute). In the case of Burma it was reported that, “In 2019, the Burmese government continued to commit widespread and egregious religious freedom violations, particularly against Rohingya Muslims. Ethnic‐driven conflict and degradation of other civil rights often coincide with religious differences, thereby severely restricting freedom of religion or belief.”
While to some what constitutes human rights may seem obvious, differing cultural customs and beliefs can sometimes raise a question about whether a practice is a human rights violation. In many cases, the Universal Declaration serves as a support to protect people from cultural practices that infringe upon their rights. For example, the right to education is a human right, however, in some countries, women are prohibited from studying for religious and cultural reasons. Punishments for violating this rule can be severe, including beatings, disfigurement and the common practice of throwing acid on the woman’s face. Additionally, in some areas of Africa, cultural beliefs allow for the continued practice of female genital mutilation which is largely performed on children who have no voice or agency. Those who enforce these practices claim that they are important parts of their social structure and cultural belief system, however, by robbing an entire gender of their right to education and subjecting a gender to physical mutilation, there is strong evidence that these practices in fact represent human rights violations (Egan 12).
Human rights are also closely linked with environmental rights. Since humans inhabit the planet, environmental issues such as the pollution of freshwater, air and the soil all affect human rights to health. When pollution becomes so pervasive that it results in illness or even death, that is considered an infringement on human rights. Air pollution alone kills an estimated 4.2 people every year (World Health Organization, Air). Such issues have come to the forefront of political talks in recent years and in October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council declared in resolution 48/13 that having a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right (United Nations, Access).
In summary, human rights are important because they protect vulnerable populations and help fight against unjust cultural and religious practices that infringe on an individual’s rights. Human rights are also important because they help reinforce the need for stricter laws to protect the environment with the aim of providing unpolluted and healthy environments for all humans.
Bandow, Doug. Religious Persecution Around the Globe: A Guide, May 3, 2020: https://www.cato.org/commentary/religious-persecution-around-globe-guide.
Egan, Suzanne. The UN Human Rights Treaty System: Law and Procedure. Bloomsbury Professional, 2011.
Kalin, Walter, and Jorg Kunzli. The Law of International Human Rights Protection. Oxford University Press, USA, 2010.
United Nations, Access to a healthy environment declared a human right by UN rights council, October 8, 2021: https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/10/1102582.
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights: https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.