What are Human Rights?

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The basic idea of human rights is that every person possesses dignity as a result of the mere fact that she or he is a human being. In order to protect this inherent dignity, every person holds rights which are inalienable and indivisible. The concept of human rights rests on a universal value system shared by all peoples, which provides the framework for a human rights system with internationally recognised norms and standards. Human rights norms govern the relationship between the state and the people living under its jurisdiction. Governments are under an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights and freedoms of individuals through adequate legislation and implementing measures. For example, the government must respect the freedom of expression or the privacy of the individual. The government must, in this context, not only refrain from interfering with a peaceful demonstration, it is also required to take active steps in order to protect protesters from potential attacks by opposing activists. Through preventive measures and sanctioning of violence, it also safeguards the prohibition of torture and cruel or degrading treatment. Finally, the government has an obligation to fulfil, for example, the right to education or the right to health by building schools and hospitals, and employing teachers and doctors.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted, also as a consequence of the atrocities of World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the first comprehensive and universally applicable human rights document. The Declaration outlines the different categories and principles of the human rights system.

There are the categories of civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; as well as the solidarity rights. A number of human rights principles are equally applicable to all of these categories of rights. Thus, no one shall be discriminated against on the grounds of his or her social or ethnic origin, race, religion, gender, age, language etc. Moreover, governments must provide every person with an effective remedy in order to claim the human rights as guaranteed. Finally, every person shall have the opportunity to participate in the realisation of his or her rights. The right to education, for example, includes the right of parents to decide whether their child attends a public school or a school offering a Montessori-based curriculum.

  • Right to life, liberty, security
  • Prohibition of slavery
  • Prohibition of torture
  • Right to a fair trial
  • Right to privacy and family life
  • Freedom of movement
  • Freedom of expression and religion
  • Freedom of assembly and association
  • Right to take part in government
  • Right to work, adequate renumeration and free choice of employment
  • Right to form trade unions
  • Right to adequate standard of living, right to food
  • Right to health care
  • Right to education
  • Right to participate in social and cultural life
  • right to self-determination of peoples
  • right to peace
  • right to a healthy environment

Civil and political rights are often called “1st generation human rights”. They were established during the age of enlightenment in the 18th century and reflect the concept of individual freedom vis-à-vis the government, as well as the idea of political participation. The “2nd generation human rights” are economic, social and cultural rights which resulted from the labour movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. The “3rd generation human rights” are solidarity rights, which evolved in the 1980s and are contingent on international cooperation.

The United Nations (UN) are the primary institution for the setting of international human rights standards. Starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN has so far developed a number of comprehensive international human rights agreements which establish binding legal obligations for States Parties.

Austria is party to all of the above-mentioned agreements, therefore every person living in Austria enjoys the rights and freedoms guaranteed therein. Austria protects human rights in its constitution as well as by different laws; the European Convention on Human Rights enjoys constitutional status in Austria.

In addition to the main human rights agreements, a number of agreements on specific human rights issues form part of the international human rights system. For example, in spring 2007, Austria signed the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, as well as the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as one of the first countries. Moreover, many countries are party to regional human rights agreements, such as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission or the African Commission on Human Rights. All member states of the Council of Europe are parties to the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the foremost instrument for human rights protection in Europe.

There are numerous mechanisms for the world-wide promotion and protection of human rights at international and regional level. In addition to the Human Rights Council and the Special Procedures for thematic areas and country situations, the United Nations have established Treaty Monitoring Bodies for the different human rights agreements. They review whether States Parties are adequately fulfilling their human rights obligations and receive individual complaints from persons who claim violations of their human rights. In Europe, the European Court on Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, the OSCE as well as the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights also oversee the promotion and protection of human rights. Finally, Non-Governmental Organisations and the civil society play an important role for the promotion and protection of human rights locally and around the world.