Following the tragedies of World War II, which involved gross abuses by some governments and their armies—Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, for example—against millions of individuals and peoples of the world, there was a worldwide movement in favor of the idea of human rights. The United Nations, an organization of the world’s nation-states established after World War II in order to promote international peace and justice, became a leader in the promotion of human rights throughout the world.
In 1948, this international body issued the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a statement of the rights every human being should have in order to achieve a minimally acceptable quality of life. Its first article says, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
Article 2 continues, "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." The remainder of the document details the human rights that ideally should be enjoyed by each person in the world.
Since 1948, the United Nations has issued several other documents on human rights, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The U.N. documents are statements of ideals about human rights intended to guide the actions of the world’s nation-states, but the United Nations cannot enforce them in the way that a sovereign nation-state can compel obedience to laws within its territory. Thus, practical protection for human rights is possible today only through the governmental institutions of the world’s independent nation-states.
The quality of the protection of human rights varies significantly from country to country. It depends upon what the nation’s constitution says about rights and the capacity of the government to enforce the rights guaranteed in its constitution. There is general international agreement that there are two basic categories of human rights.
First, there are rights pertaining to what should not be done to any human being. Second, there are rights pertaining to what should be done for every human being. The first category of human rights involves constitutional guarantees that prohibit the government from depriving people of some political or personal rights. For example, the government cannot constitutionally take away someone’s right to participate freely and independently in an election or to freely practice a particular religion.
The second category of human rights requires positive action by the government to provide someone with a social or economic right that otherwise would not be available to her or him. Thus, the government may be expected to provide opportunities for individuals to go to school or to receive healthcare benefits.
The constitutions of many democracies specify certain social and economic rights that the government is expected to provide. In other democracies, for example the United States, programs that provide social and economic rights or entitlements, such as Social Security benefits for elderly persons and medical care for indigent persons, are established through legislation that is permitted but not required by the constitution.
By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)