So What Are Human Rights, Exactly?


I love all-things HR (that’s Human Rights, not Human Resources), so let me be the first to wish you a happy Human Rights Day! Today, we bring attention to human rights abuses, while raising awareness of human rights proclamations and treaties that aim to protect each and every one of us.  This is like my birthday and Christmas all rolled into one: the excitement of watching my Twitter and Facebook feeds burst with messages of human rights and having a(nother) reason to engage in dialogue about HR with people outside my circle of usual suspects. Oh, the joy!

Except, if experience has taught me anything, I’m just as likely today to be met with blank stares and asked, “what’s that?” when I say HUMAN RIGHTS, as I am on any other day.

This most often happens when, in casual conversation, I mention I have a Master’s degree in Human Rights. Nine times out of ten, people cock their heads to one side, furrow their brows and ask, “wait, what’s that?”

It’s no small coincidence that the people asking are usually cisgender, white, of a privileged background and probably give the concept of rights no more thought than their chances of contracting leprosy. In all likelihood, these are the same folks who, given the opportunity, would scoff at women’s rights: “women can vote, what more is there to do?!”

Perhaps what’s more disturbing is the difficulty I have in trying to explain what, exactly, human rights are. I tend to start throwing out terms like “civil, political, economic, social and cultural,” but by the time I’m finished, my words are met with glazed eyes.

I’ve come to realize that, much like feminism, there isn’t a catch-all definition — or prioritization — of human rights; they mean something different to everyone and are steeped in one’s subjective reality and life experiences. For example, I prioritize access to abortion and reproductive health services as a human right.  Ask a person in drought- and famine-stricken Africa, and his/her answer would be drastically different from mine.

Which begs the question, can human rights truly be objective and standardized, if their definitions and assigned values vary from country to country, culture to culture, person to person?  And how do we navigate influential, and sometimes rigid, social and cultural norms to promote a concept of universal rights? I don’t pretend to have the answer. But I do know that rights mean nothing without unwavering respect for the principles of equality, dignity and freedom.

So let’s hear it: what do human rights mean to YOU?

Categories: Violence

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. You captured a really important point here: human rights are subjective and hold a different meaning to everyone. How we prioritize certain human rights causes speaks to our own internal thought processes, life experiences and background. I think having someone focusing on reproductive access while another on food justice allows the world to become a better place, one small step at a time. Our movements are unified in that they are all interconnected to achieving the highest condition possible for an individual and for that, I am grateful for every human rights activists on the planet.

    Happy Human Rights Day everyone!


  1. “Freedom from” vs. “Access to” «

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: