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What are human rights anyway?

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The basic concept of this declaration is that all people are "born free and equal in dignity and rights" (UDHR, Article 1). That means that everyone has fundamental needs and privileges that may not be denied - and we are all responsible for each other.

Human rights are about the common humanity of individuals, so human rights work often focuses on building tolerance for differences of religion, environment, collective history, culture, class, race, gender or age. In your metropolitan New York-area human rights work, you might focus on racism, women's rights, refugees, religious freedom, children's rights, academic freedom, labor rights, lesbian and gay rights, international justice - or something completely different. But as long as you deal with someone's right to live "free and equal in dignity and rights," you're dealing with human rights.

The most common focuses for human rights work are:

Children's Rights:

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child lays out the special protections that children under 18 deserve. They need adequate medical care - including prenatal care and care for any special ailments. They also need their families, or at least environments of "affection, moral and material security." They need schooling. And, especially when they're small, they need to be protected from all forms of exploitation.

Civil and Political Rights:

The Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women says that nations need to get rid of laws, customs and practices that discriminate against women. It also says that women need special protection for their basic rights, especially in terms of marriage and bodily integrity. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women offers special rules about rape and other crimes.
Rights of Ethnic Minorities:
The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities explains that nations need to protect the existence and identity of minority persons. It also states that minorities have the right to form their own groups and engage in their own cultural pursuits. Nations also need to make sure that minorities' basic human rights - like the right to an education and the right to work and so forth - are protected.

Social, Cultural and Economic Rights:
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights lays out many of the basics of social, cultural and economic rights. It states that people should be able to get training, work and dispose of their money as they please. It also states that people need safe working conditions, fair wages, equal opportunity and some time to relax!

Women's Rights:
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that people have the right to go to court and that all people are equal in the law. It also states that prisoners should be treated humanely, that people should be able to move freely, and that everyone should be free to think, believe and worship as they want to. The covenant also outlines how the Human Rights Committee should be formed and maintained.

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