What are Human Rights?

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The basic idea of human rights is that every person possesses dignity by the fact alone of being a person. Human rights, which are inalienable and indivisible, protect this dignity. The concept of human rights is based on a universal system of values shared by all peoples, which offers a framework for the construction of a human rights system with internationally recognised norms and standards. Human rights norms regulate the relationship between the state and the people living under its responsibility. Governments have the obligation to respect, protect and guarantee the rights and freedoms of people through appropriate legislation and measures.

For example, the state must respect the freedom of opinion or privacy of the individual. Not only is it not allowed to intervene in peaceful demonstrations, but it must also take active steps to protect demonstrators from aggression by counter-demonstrators. Through preventive measures and the punishment of violence it also safeguards the prohibition on torture and inhuman or cruel treatment. Finally the state has the task of providing schools, hospitals, teachers and doctors so as to guarantee the right to education and health care.

The first comprehensive and universally valid human rights document was the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948 in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War. The Declaration contains all the various categories and principles of the human rights system.

There are civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; and solidarity rights. Certain basic human rights principles apply to all these rights. For example, no one may be discriminated against on the grounds of origins, colour, religion, sex, age, language or assets. Moreover, states must provide every person with effective legal recourse to assert guaranteed rights. Finally, all people should be in a position to determine the way in which their rights are realised. For example, the right to education includes the right of parents to decide whether their children attend a state school or a Montessori school.

The main civil and political rights are:

  • right to life, liberty and security of person
  • prohibition of slavery
  • prohibition of torture
  • right to a fair trial
  • protection of privacy and family life
  • freedom of movement
  • freedom of opinion and religion freedom of assembly and association
  • right to vote

The main economic, social and cultural rights are:

  • right to work, reasonable pay and free choice of employment
  • right to form trade unions
  • right to a reasonable standard of living, right to food
  • right to reasonable health care
  • right to education
  • right to participate in cultural and social life

The main solidarity rights are:

  • right of peoples to self-determination
  • right to peace
  • right to a clean environment
  • right to development

Civil and political rights are sometimes called first-generation human rights. They arose during the Enlightenment in the 18th century and reflect the idea of individual freedom with respect to the state and the democratic idea of participation. Second-generation human rights are the economic, social and cultural rights that developed during the labour movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. The third generation of human rights, solidarity rights, have existed since the mid-1980s. They are contingent on international cooperation and aim at the formation of a community.

The United Nations (UN) is the leading body in the definition of international human rights standards. Starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN has developed a series of comprehensive human rights agreements under international law creating binding obligations for the signatories.

The main agreements are:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) 
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
  • International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984)
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)

Austria has ratified all of these conventions and every person living in Austria therefore enjoys the rights documented in them. Austria protects human rights in the Constitution and in numerous individual laws. The European Convention on Human Rights has the same status as the Constitution.

Apart from the main conventions within the international human rights system, there are also numerous agreements regarding special human rights issues. In early 2007, for example, Austria was one of the first states to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Many states are also parties to regional human rights treaties such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights or the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. All member states of the Council of Europe are also parties to the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the authoritative human rights instrument in Europe.

There are numerous international and regional mechanisms for the worldwide promotion of human rights protection and monitoring of compliance with human rights obligations by states. Apart from the UN Human Rights Council and the Special Rapporteurs on human rights issues and country situations, the UN has established surveillance authorities for the various human rights conventions. They verify that the states parties comply with their human rights obligations and receive complaints from individuals. In Europe the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitor the protection of human rights. Finally, non-governmental organisations (NGOs)play an important role in the protection and promotion of human rights in their own countries and throughout the world.