Human rightsare the rights all people have simply because they are human beings. To advocate human rights is to demand that the dignity of all people be respected. Both government and private
individuals can violate human rights. Human rights apply in people’s homes, schools, and workplaces. In fact they apply everywhere. We have our human rights from the moment we are born until the moment we die.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a statement of basic human rights and standards for government that has been agreed to by almost every country in the world. (The text of the entire UDHR is provided on pages 616–623.) First written and adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1948 under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, it proclaims that all people have the right to liberty, education, political and religious freedom, and economic well-being. The Declaration also bans torture and says that all people have the right to participate in their government process. Today these rights are generally promoted, recognized, and observed by countries that belong to the UN.
The UDHR is not a binding treaty. However, the UN has established a system of international treaties and other legal mechanisms to enforce human rights. These include the following major treaties:
• The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the freedoms of speech, religion, and press and the right to participate in government.
• The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides for the right to adequate education, food, housing, health care, protection of property, and employment in safe
conditions at an adequate salary.
• The Convention on the Rights of the Child spells out basic human rights to which children everywhere are entitled, including the right to education and to be free from exploitation.
Some believe the right to a clean environment should be added to the Covenants, while others call for a right to economic development for poor countries. The United States has signed and ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has signed but not ratified both the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
There are other important human rights treaties covering specific areas of human rights, including genocide and discrimination against women. Even when the United States signs a human rights
agreement, it often restricts its enforcement within the country.
This is done by announcing that the United States is taking reservations,which is a legal way of making a provision less enforceable than it might otherwise be. The government gives a number of
reasons for these reservations, including the fact that the treaty would take away the power of individual states to make law under our system of federalism, as well as the belief that other countries should not impose their views on the states. Those who advocate ratification argue that states could still decide how to implement treaties.
You have been selected to join a group of space pioneers who will establish
a colony on a distant planet. In order to create the best possible society,
you and your group decide to make a list of the human rights that all space
colonists should have.
a.List the three most important human rights that you believe should be
guaranteed to all colonists.
b.Compare your list with those of other group members. Explain reasons
for your selections.
c.Why do you think some of the rights you listed are more important
d.Do any of the rights you listed conflict with one another? If so, which
e.Compare your list of rights with the rights listed on pages 616–623, the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Which ones did you include?
Which ones did you not include?
f.Are all the human rights you listed also legal rights? When does a human
right become a legal right?
Human rights are standards that all countries can use when writing laws. Sometimes human rights become law in a country when the government signs an international treaty guaranteeing such rights. Human rights also can become law if they are included in a constitution or if the legislature of a country passes laws protecting or guaranteeing these rights. Even though they may not refer to them as “human rights,” there are many provisions that protect human rights
in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and in federal, state, and local laws.
Many of the human rights documents—including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—mention cultural rights, and it is widely accepted that all people have a right to their own culture. But
what does this right to culture mean when culture comes into conflict with other universally accepted human rights? For example, the practice of female infanticide, or the killing of female babies, might be accepted in one culture, but the world community condemns it as a violation of a human right, the right to life. So cultural rights, like many other rights, are not absolute.
Many countries have more serious human rights violations than the United States. This may be one reason some people in the United States tend to use the term human rights only when referring to violations that occur in other countries. However, human rights do apply to all people in all countries
around the world, including the United States.
a.Assume the following events take place in
the United States. Decide if each is a
human rights violation. If it is, identify
the article of the UDHR that is at issue.
1.Before class starts, the teacher says,
“You can’t pray in school.”
2.A child goes to sleep hungry because
the parents have no money for food.
3.A student receives a poor education
in her high school and is rejected for
every job for which she applies.
4.A man is stopped before boarding
an airplane and strip-searched
because he has an Arab-sounding
name and a stamp on his passport
indicating that he has been to Iraq
in the past year.
5.A Spanish-speaking student speaks
Spanish to another student. The principal
tells the students that only
English may be spoken in the school.
6.A woman is ill and is turned away
from a hospital because she does
not have health insurance or the
money to pay her medical bill.
7.A homeless man asks for money
from people passing by, but people
do not give him any money.
8.A Muslim high school girl wears a
hijab (head scarf) to school. The
teacher tells her to remove it during
class, as there is a rule against hats or
other head coverings in the building.
9.A family moves to the United States
from an African country where it is
part of the culture for the wife to stay
at home and take care of the household.
The husband comes home
from work and finds that his wife has
not done the laundry or cooked dinner.
He disciplines her by striking her
three times, the usual method of discipline
in their culture.
b.Did you find any human rights in conflict
within any of the above examples? What
should be done when this occurs?
The emphasis on rights in the United States has led some people to criticize the country for being too concerned with rights, while neglecting responsibilities. Some say that “with every right there
comes a responsibility” and urge people to act more responsibly toward one another, their families, and their communities.
While individual rights are important, they must be matched by social responsibilities, these critics say. For example, if people wish to be tried by juries of their peers, they must be willing to serve on such juries. If they want to be governed by elected officials who respond to their values and needs, they must not only vote but also get involved in other ways: attend election forums, work for candidates, and run for positions on school boards, city councils, and community associations. Many laws also require people to act responsibly. For example, parents must provide their children with adequate food, shelter, and clothing; drivers must obey traffic laws; and all workers must pay taxes.
Critics of the emphasis on rights in the United States also point out that “just because you have a legal right to do (or not to do) something does not mean it is the right thing to do.” For example, the
First Amendment protects freedom of speech and sometimes gives people the right to say hateful and abusive things to others. However, it does not make such speech morally right.
Others emphasize the pride that Americans take because rights have been extended to women, minorities, and persons with disabilities, all of whom had been previously excluded from full participation in society. Striking the correct balance between rights and responsibilities can be difficult.
Kinds of Laws
Laws fall into two major groups: criminal and civil. Criminal lawsregulate public conduct and set out duties owed to society. A criminal case can be brought only by the government against a person charged with committing a crime. Criminal laws have penalties, and convicted offenders are imprisoned, fined, placed under supervision, or punished in some other way. In the U.S. legal system, criminal offenses are divided into feloniesand misdemeanors.Felonies, such as murder
or robbery, are more serious crimes. The penalty for a felony is a term of more than one year in prison. For a misdemeanor, the penalty is a prison term of one year or less. Less serious crimes, such as simple assault or minor theft, are called misdemeanors.
Civil lawsregulate relations between individuals or groups of individuals. A civil actionis a lawsuit that can be brought by a person who feels wronged or injured by another person. Courts may award
the injured person money for the loss, or they may order the person who committed the wrong to make amends in some other way. An example of a civil action is a lawsuit for recovery of damages suffered in an automobile accident. Civil laws regulate many everyday situations, such as marriage, divorce, contracts, real estate, insurance, consumer protection, and negligence.
Sometimes behavior can violate both civil and criminal laws and can result in two court cases. A criminal case is brought by the government against a defendant,the person accused of committing the crime. A civil case is brought by the plaintiff—the person or company harmed-against the defendant.
In a famous series of cases, former star football player O.J. Simpson was prosecuted in connection with the deaths of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. The Los
Angeles district attorney was the prosecutorin this criminal case. In order to win a conviction, the district attorney had to prove that. O.J. Simpson was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.This means that if the jury (or the judge in a case tried without a jury) has any reasonable doubts about the defendant’s guilt, then it must vote not to convict. The jury verdict in Simpson’s criminal case was not guilty.
Several months later, the parents of Ron Goldman brought a civil suit against O.J. Simpson to recover damages resulting from the wrongful death of their son. In a civil case, the plaintiff wins by
convincing the jury (or the judge in a case tried without a jury) by a preponderance of the evidence.The jury (or judge) needs only to decide if it is more likely than not that the plaintiff’s complaint is true. This is a lower requirement for proof than the beyond-a-reasonabledoubt
standard used in criminal cases. The reason for the different standards of proof is that a defendant loses money in a civil case but can suffer lengthy imprisonment or even the death penalty as a result of a criminal conviction. The Goldmans won their civil case against O.J. Simpson. Because the public tends not to understand the difference between civil and criminal cases, there was much confusion about how a person could be found not guilty in a criminal case and then responsible in a civil suit for damages for the same act.
Matt and Kenji decide to skip school. They take Kenji’s brother’s car
without telling him and drive to a local shopping center. Ignoring the sign
“Parking for Handicapped Persons Only,” they leave the car and enter an
After looking around, they buy an MP3 player. Then they buy some
sandwiches from a street vendor and walk to a nearby park. While eating,
they discover that the MP3 player does not work. In their hurry to return it,
they leave their trash on the park bench.
When Matt and Kenji get back to the shopping center, they notice a large
dent in one side of their car. The dent appears to be the result of a driver’s
carelessness in backing out of the next space. They also notice that the car
has been broken into and that the satellite radio has been removed.
They call the police to report the accident and theft. When the police
arrive, they seize a small, clear bag containing illegal drugs from behind the
car’s backseat. Matt and Kenji are arrested.
a.List all the things you think Matt and Kenji did wrong.
b.What laws are involved in this story?
c.Which of these are criminal laws? Which are civil laws?