Question: How can we say that human rights are universal, when there are people all over the world who are suffering violations of their rights?

These people still have their rights. The fact that they are being treated in such a way contravenes not only moral norms but also internationally agreed norms. Their state representatives are culpable under international law, and some countries are indeed "punished" by the international community, in the form of sanctions, or even by military means. However, such processes are often arbitrary, depending on other nations' interests rather than the degree of violation. The coming into being of the International Criminal Court has gone some way towards addressing this gap. As the first permanent, treaty-based international criminal court – established by the Rome Statute – this court is empowered to lend assistance in ending impunity for those that have committed the most serious crimes of concern to the international community: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Question: What use is the UDHR if it is not legally enforceable?

Even if there is not (yet) an international court before which governments can be tried under articles in the UDHR, this document has had enormous historical significance and continues even today to operate as a benchmark against which governments are judged internationally. Governments today know that if they willfully infringe rights listed in the document, they face the possibility of condemnation by other governments and even some form of sanctions. The process is not always entirely objective (!) but it is certainly a start. The UDHR also formed the basis for nearly all of the international treaties that have been drawn up and which are (to a greater or lesser extent) enforceable.

Question: What use are "human rights" to me, when my government violates the rights of ordinary people on a daily basis and has no concern for the disapproval of the international community?

Again – they are a start; they are better than having nothing at all and they will, under the right circumstances and with the right approach, be able to influence the government to change some, if not all, of its practices. This can sometimes seem a very distant hope, when violations by the government are particularly severe or particularly frequent, but history has shown, time and again, that it is possible. Also, opportunities today are probably better than they have been up until now. Promoting change can be a slow process, but the fact that individuals have these rights and that they are increasingly recognised throughout the world – and are therefore at least of some concern to governments – provides us with a powerful weapon and a valuable head start.

Question:  If I respect the human rights of others, does that mean allowing them to do whatever they want?

Not if their desire involves violating your or anyone else's rights. But you may need to be careful not to be too demanding over the extent of your own rights: you might find someone's behaviour annoying or misguided, but that need not necessarily be an infringement of your rights. Therefore, if you want others to allow you to behave as you wish, you may need to cultivate a more tolerant attitude towards the behaviour of others!

Question: Can I do anything, including using violence against someone, to defend my rights?

In general, no. But if it is a genuine case of self-defence, then a legitimate use of force, appropriate to the threat against you, may be admissible. It is not permissible as "retribution" for the wrong you have suffered but only in order to protect yourself from further harm. Torture is never admissible.

Question: Why should I respect the rights of others if others do not respect my rights?

Partly because if you don't respect others' rights, you may get into trouble yourself; partly because others deserve your respect, simply because they are human; and partly because you can set an example to others that will make it more likely for them to respect you. In the end, though, it is probably down to you and the type of person you want to be or the kind of world you want to live in. So you could reflect on what it would say about you if you were to behave in the manner that you dislike in others. Or think about the type of world it would be if everyone violated everyone else's rights in a tit-for-tat manner.

Question: Why should those who violate the rights of others in the most inhumane way be regarded as subjects of "human" rights?

This is perhaps the most difficult but also the most essential part of human rights theory to accept. It can sometimes seem that certain individuals are so lacking in humane characteristics that only blind faith could enable us to see them as human. The important points are perhaps the following:

  • Firstly, despite some people's apparent inhumanity, every individual possesses some humanity. Villains love their mothers, their children, their husbands and wives – or someone. Villains feel pain, rejection, despair and jealousy; they desire to be appreciated, valued, supported, loved and understood. They all, every one of them, possess some, if not most, of these exclusively human emotions. That makes them human and deserving of our respect.
  • Secondly, we do ourselves no good in desiring to hurt villains in the same way that they have hurt others: such feelings only make us less worthy of respect as well.
  • Thirdly, even if, perchance, a villain were ever to emerge with "human" form but without any human characteristics (and there has never been one yet), who among us could say with absolute certainty that he or she is Not A Human? On what criteria? On the basis, perhaps, that they are incapable of loving or being loved? But what if we turn out to be mistaken in that belief?

The third point reminds us that we need to consider the risks for humanity as a whole in setting up some people to judge others where the consequences of that judgement are terrible and irreversible. Do we really want a world where such judgements are made and where some people are simply designated as not possessing human rights and therefore as non-human? Without the absolute universality of all human rights, that is the type of world that we would have.


“Europe, Youth, Human Rights, Report of the Human Rights Week”, by Yael Ohana (ed.), European Youth Centre, Budapest, 2000.
Garzón Valdés, E., “Confusiones acerca de la relevancia moral de la diversidad cultural”, CLAVES de Razón Práctica, No.74, Madrid, Julio/Agosto, 1997.
Human Rights, a basic handbook for UN staff, Office of the High Commission of Human Rights, United Nations, Geneva. 2001
Available at
Levin, L., Human Rights, Questions and Answers, Unesco, Paris, 1996
Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in theory and practice, Cornell University Press, 1989.
Freeman, Michael, Human Rights: Key Concepts, Polity Press, London, 2002.
Ishay, Micheline R. ed., The Human Rights Reader, Routledge, London, 1997.
Rishmawi, M., The Arab Charter on Human Rights and the League of Arab States: An Update, Human Rights Law Review, 10.1, pp. 169-178
Symonides, Janusz ed., Human Rights: New Dimensions and Challenges, Manual on Human Rights, Unesco/Dartmouth Publishing, Paris, 1998.
Robertson A. and Merrills J, Human rights in the world, Manchester University Press, 1996. Council of Europe website on bioethics:, for the quotation of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Hanski, R., Suksi, M. (eds.), An introduction to the international protection of human rights: a textbook, Åbo Akademi University Institute for Human Rights, 1999.
Fact Sheet No. 2 (Rev. 1), The International Bill of Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Short Guide to the European Convention on Human Rights, Council of Europe Publishing.
European Court of Human Rights,
The Committee for Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,
The Council of Europe Website on Gender Equality,
The European Social Charter,
The Framework Convention on Protection of National Minorities, www.
The site of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance,
The Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights,
The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights,
Risse T., Ropp S., Sikkink K., The Power of human rights, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Forsythe, D., Human rights in International Relations, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Hijab, Nadia, Human Rights and Human Development: Learning from Those Who Act, HDRO Background paper, 2000.