Human Rights: Definition & Categories

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  • 0:10 Definition of Human Rights
  • 1:00 Right to Security from Harm
  • 2:00 Right to Legal Equality
  • 2:55 Right to Political…
  • 4:05 Right to Liberty
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do we define human rights? What general categories do they fall under? Explore these ideas and test your understanding of human rights issues with a brief quiz.

Human Rights

Some people say that the younger generation is entitled. To that I say, 'Well, yeah.' But really, aren't we all? We all have certain liberties and freedoms to which we are entitled simply because we're human beings. We even have a term for these: human rights.

Human rights have become more and more of an important issue since the end of WWII, when the international peacekeeping organization called the United Nations was formed with the goal of preventing massive war or genocide ever again. One of the first things they did was draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that defined the basic rights guaranteed to every person. Since then, this document has guided international and domestic policy and has been continually upheld as the fundamental freedoms that must be protected across the world. And what are these freedoms? Well, let's take a look.

Right to Security from Harm

While there are many accepted human rights, they tend to fall into a few specific categories. One of them is the right to security from harm, which really just means you have a right to not live in fear that someone will hurt you. This can mean that you are protected from threats from other people, which is why we arrest murderers, but also from governments.

Perhaps the most blunt example of this is Article 5 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ''No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.'' There's also an article in there forbidding slavery. So, get the point here? It's not just physical harm that you have the right to be free of; it's also harm to your psyche or status as a human. No matter what, you should always expect to be treated with the basic respect and dignity owed to a human being.

Right to Legal Equality

Another common category of human rights is the expectation to receive equal protection under the law. So it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, one religion or another, American, Chinese, Yugoslavian, or whatever, you should still be held to the same standard of justice. Wait, Yugoslavia's not a country anymore? When did that happen? And why didn't anyone tell me?

Sorry, the point is that justice, which is a very old concept, should be unbiased and that every single person has a right to justice just because they're human. Even Yugoslavians, wherever they are now. In the UN's Declaration, this is important enough to form parts of at least six different articles, which include that everyone must be recognized as a person before the law, all are entitled without discrimination to equal protection of the law, etc., etc.

Right to Political Participation

Ok, this next one is actually a little bit trickier. The freedoms within this category, right to political participation, mean different things to different people. Here in the USA, we interpret that to mean that everyone has the right to have a voice in the government. That's been our policy for quite some time. That's also why we're a democratic republic, so that any person can participate in American politics. But on an international scale, this could mean different things. After all, there are still monarchies in the world and other forms of government less open to total participation.

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