Human Rights Backgrounder


Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death. They apply regardless of where you are from, what you believe or how you choose to live your life. As defined by the United Nations, human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.

The concept of human rights has deep roots, with landmark developments including the Magna Carta of 1215, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, the Bill of Rights of 1689, and more recently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948 after the atrocities of World War II. This was the first attempt to set out the fundamental rights and freedoms shared by all human beings at a global level. It formed the basis for the European Convention on Human Rights adopted in 1950, which protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe, including the UK.

Despite these important historical developments, the term “human rights” only came into common use after World War II with the founding of the United Nations in 1945. It replaced earlier phrases like “natural rights” and “rights of Man” to be more inclusive. The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, which remains the most important global human rights document today.

The UDHR consists of 30 articles affirming an individual’s rights, covering issues such as the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom of expression, the right to work, the right to education, and more. It is not a treaty, so it does not directly create legal obligations for countries, but it is an expression of the fundamental values shared by all members of the international community. Its principles have been incorporated into numerous international treaties and national constitutions and domestic legal frameworks over the decades.

The UDHR, along with two important covenants – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – make up the International Bill of Human Rights. Together, these documents form the basis for all international human rights law.

Human rights are often divided into three “generations” based on when they were first recognized:

  • First-generation human rights deal essentially with liberty and participation in political life. They protect the individual from excesses of the state and include things like the right to life, equality before the law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, property rights, the right to a fair trial, and voting rights.
  • Second-generation human rights are related to equality and began to be recognized by governments after World War II. They ensure different members of the citizenry equal conditions and treatment and include things like the right to be employed in just and favorable condition, rights to food, housing and health care, as well as social security and unemployment benefits.
  • Third-generation human rights are those that go beyond the mere civil and social, expressed in many progressive documents of international law. They include group and collective rights, the right to self-determination, the right to economic and social development, the right to a healthy environment, the right to natural resources, the right to communicate and communication rights, the right to participation in cultural heritage, and the rights to intergenerational equity and sustainability.

While the UDHR and other international human rights treaties form the backbone of international human rights law, the UN has also established numerous mechanisms and institutions to advance and protect human rights around the world. These include the UN Human Rights Council, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and various UN Special Rapporteurs who investigate and report on specific human rights issues.

Significant Human Rights Issues in 2024

Despite the global recognition of human rights, violations and abuses continue to occur in various parts of the world. In 2024, several regions and countries faced significant human rights challenges, as documented by various organizations and reports.

The Middle East and North Africa

The Human Rights Watch World Report 2024 highlights the ongoing human rights crises in the Middle East and North Africa region. The report states that “renewed hostilities between Israel and Hamas caused tremendous suffering, as did ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.” According to Amnesty International, “states and armed groups are breaking and bending the rules of war, and racism lies at the heart of some armed conflicts and the responses to them.”

In Iran, the human rights situation deteriorated further, with a significant increase in executions and arrests of dissidents and protesters. The U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices states that “a total of 798 citizens were executed during the year, marking a 37 percent increase from 2022,” and “restrictions on religious freedom intensified during the year, particularly against members of the Baha’i community.”

Europe and Eurasia

In Russia, the ongoing invasion of Ukraine led to widespread human rights violations and war crimes. The U.S. State Department report notes that “Russian forces employ violence against civilians as a deliberate tool of warfare,” including “mass surveillance of individuals and the use of ‘filtration’ operations in occupied areas, defined as ‘a process used to seek to identify possible affiliation with or support for the Ukrainian armed forces or authorities and to collect information regarding residents in occupied territory.'”In Ukraine, while the government faced significant challenges due to the ongoing conflict, the report also highlights “significant human rights issues involving Ukrainian government officials, although not comparable to the scope of Russia’s abuses.” These issues included “reports of cruel and unusual punishment, arbitrary arrests, and restrictions on media.”


In China, the human rights situation remained dire, with the government continuing its crackdown on ethnic minorities, particularly the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The State Department report states that “there were multiple reports from Uyghur family members who discovered their relatives died while in internment camps or within weeks of their release from causes related to their detention.”In Hong Kong, the human rights situation continued to deteriorate following China’s crackdown in 2020. The report cites “significant human rights issues including credible reports of arbitrary arrest and detention, serious problems regarding the independence of the judiciary, and political prisoners.”


Across Africa, various human rights challenges persisted, including suppression of civic space, inequalities, the devastating impact of climate change, and conflict-related human rights violations. According to Amnesty International, “six countries in our region have either active or long-running conflicts leading to massive civilian suffering and displacement crises.”

The Americas

In the United States, while the country generally upholds human rights protections, the State Department report notes that “some of these human rights issues stemmed from martial law, which continued to curtail democratic freedoms, including freedom of movement, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly, and legal protections.”In Mexico, there were positive developments, such as “a civil society coalition persuad[ing] Congress to pass a law establishing full legal capacity and the right to supported decision-making for everyone over 18, benefiting millions of people living with disabilities and older people.” However, the country continued to face challenges related to violence, corruption, and impunity.

The Role of Institutions and Civil Society

While the human rights situation in many parts of the world remained concerning, there were also examples of institutions and civil society organizations playing a crucial role in promoting and protecting human rights.The International Criminal Court (ICC) took significant steps towards accountability, issuing arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner for war crimes in Ukraine. In Brazil, the Supreme Court upheld Indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional lands, described as “one of the most effective barriers against deforestation in the Amazon.”Civil society organizations and grassroots movements continued to advocate for human rights, often at great personal risk. Human Rights Watch highlighted the role of these organizations in “re-establish[ing] the human rights framework as the roadmap to building thriving, inclusive societies.”

The Way Forward

Despite the challenges, there is a growing recognition that upholding human rights consistently, across all countries and contexts, is essential for building a more just and peaceful world. As stated by the Bush Institute, “leading with our values makes us stronger, not weaker,” and “the United States should always stand by [dissidents and ordinary citizens fighting for freedom] and shape our foreign policy accordingly.”Addressing human rights violations requires a multifaceted approach, including principled diplomacy, support for institutions that solidify human rights protections, and empowering civil society organizations and grassroots movements. It also necessitates a commitment to transparency, accountability, and the consistent application of international human rights law.As the world grapples with complex challenges, from armed conflicts to climate change and technological advancements, it is crucial to ensure that human rights remain at the forefront of global efforts. Only by upholding the inherent dignity and rights of all people can we build a more just, equitable, and sustainable future for humanity.