Human Rights Movements

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Date: 2018
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,043 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1340L

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Human rights movements focus on activism related to human rights transgressions and violations. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), human rights are rights or standards that are "universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated" and "inherent to all human beings."

The six core concepts underlying human rights are: The dignity and inherent worth of every person; freedom and development; the pursuit of world peace, social justice, democracy, and the rule of law; special protections for vulnerable groups; cultural diversity and pluralism; and the promotion of sustainable communities and environments. These concepts form the basic premise of human rights and are therefore universal. They are also within the national framework of the United Nations (UN) and its specialized agencies, including the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Human rights are not merely a set of formal agreements. They are also a set of social values and ideals that find their roots in a number of cultures and movements throughout the years—in anti-slavery and civil rights movements and in calls for liberation from colonialism.


Globalization has become an important factor in the human rights movement, as an increasingly integrated international order has opened up new avenues for human rights. The interconnectedness fostered in this environment can expose gaps in human welfare and can leave humans vulnerable to threats such as terrorism and the destruction of the natural environment. The latter, can interfere with the basic human right to live in a sustainable habitat, free of such environmental issues as climate change and exposure to hazardous waste.

As globalization is primarily an economic concept, it also reveals certain flaws and disparities in the implementation of socioeconomic human rights. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), both founded in 1945, have been accused of issuing policies to the detriment of the poorer nations. Moreover, companies began outsourcing some of their operations overseas during the 1980s because they could find people who were willing to take on the same kind of work for less pay in other countries. Such ventures further highlighted the income disparities between nations.

Globalization encourages new patterns of human migration, as changes in the economy can spur migrants to seek their fortunes elsewhere. This has resulted in the more affluent countries barring entry to immigrants. Another complex issue arises when these more affluent nations offer aid and assistance to poorer countries, as their humanitarian goals and the wishes of the local population are sometimes not in synch.

Despite these issues, the advent of globalization has served the human rights agenda remarkably well. Improvements in both communication and transportation and increased engagements between international actors have fostered cooperation throughout a wide network of individuals, communities, and organizations toward shared objectives such as poverty reduction, gender and racial inequality, and environmentalism.

Human Rights Frameworks

Human rights movements were already prominent prior to the twentieth century although they were frequently focused on local initiatives. Human rights became an international concern after the end of World War II (1939–1945) with the founding of the UN, which quickly set to work in establishing measures to ensure that the atrocities committed during the war would never happen again. Two distinct frameworks on human rights were established. The first was humanitarian law, which is embodied in the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and subsequent treaties and statutes. In 1989, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was founded to try individuals who had committed crimes against humanity.

The second framework concerns fundamental human rights. The foundation of international human rights law is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is composed of 30 articles affirming individual rights, which are divided into three categories: Civil and political rights, socioeconomic and security rights, and the rights of vulnerable persons and minority populations. The UDHR has no treaty status and is therefore unenforceable, yet it has been affirmed by 48 of the 58 members of the fledgling UN; the rest either abstained or failed to vote. None of the parties voted against the UDHR's adoption. Furthermore, the UDHR remains influential in the international human rights movement because its provisions have been elaborated in more legally binding treaties and statutes, such as the International Bill of Human Rights.

The International Bill of Human Rights came into force in 1976. It contains the UDHR and two new covenants—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). With the UDHR as their base, the covenants have further developed human rights and made their provisions legally binding on the states that have ratified them. The UN has since branched out from these documents to establish treaties that deal with specific issues or minority groups, such as the Convention on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD, 1969); the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979); and others.

Nongovernmental Organizations

Although human rights movements can take on many forms—from grassroots activism to changes to state constitutions—they are more popularly associated with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Some examples of international NGOs include Amnesty International (AI), the Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), and the Third World Network (TWN).

NGO participation was included in the UN Charter when the UN was created in 1945. NGOs provide services including information dissemination and education, technical expertise, advocacy work, and consultations. In the age of globalization, humanitarian efforts at reform, rehabilitation, and development have become increasingly complex, with local NGOs partnering up with international NGOs, transforming development projects from simple top-down affairs into collaborative projects.

U.S. Engagement

Despite the vast wealth and power the United States holds, the nation has remained mostly in the margins of the global human rights agenda. Its participation in international human rights affairs has been considered lacking, despite having the resources to overcome many of the obstacles to human rights development, such as proper funding and government stability. Moreover, the United States has been accused of human rights violations abroad in conflicts in such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although the human rights situation in the United States is relatively better than other nations, it has many shortcomings in enforcing human rights at the domestic level. According to a 2017 report by the HRW, the United States still violates internationally recognized human rights through its laws and practices, especially those relating to criminal and juvenile justice, immigration, and national security. Moreover, despite its diverse population and strong constitutional backing for political and civil rights, the members of minority groups are most likely to suffer human rights abuses.

These issues have been increasingly reported on after the November 2016 election of President Donald Trump, whose administration's policies advocate for the legal use of torture against groups intending to do harm to the United States, restrict immigration and take a more definitive stance against illegal immigrants within the nation's borders, and take are less sympathetic to women who undergo abortions.

Further Crises

In the twenty-first century, the sheer number and variety of human rights abuses make curtailing such abuses an enormous challenge. Human trafficking, armed conflict, millions of refugees from conflict zones, forced recruitment of child soldiers, increased government surveillance of citizens, repression of free speech, exploitative child labor, loss of habitat and fresh water due to corporate exploitation of natural resources are just a sampling of human rights crises around the planet.

In response to the deployment of the Internet and round-the-clock news coverage, many governments have learned how to hijack the language of human rights to spin their agendas in more palatable terms. "Human rights" were a rallying call by neoconservatives seeking to promote democracy and end repression, and thus they became one of several justifications offered for U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Human rights" is one purported justification offered by Russia for moving into the Crimea to "protect" the ethnic Russians living there.

Under international law, human rights are secondary to security concerns during a national emergency, a position exploited by many governments. In the past, the incarceration of Japanese American citizens during World War II and Stalin's purges were justified by the governments involved who argued for such actions on the grounds of national security. In the twenty-first century, ethnic profiling of individuals, indefinite detentions, "rendering" or sending a suspect to a third country to be questioned under torture, and similar human rights violations are done in the name of preventing terrorism.

Human rights advocacy is sometimes criticized for being insensitive to the traditions of other cultures. People living in non-western cultures are wary of having western laws imposed on them in the name of human rights and international law. They argue that human rights should be applied in the contexts of their customs and cultures rather than dictated by the western standards of foreigners. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that human rights belong to everyone regardless of race, religion, ethnic origin, geographical location, and cultural setting, but in practice this can lead to cultural conflict. For example, in France, Muslim women wear head coverings for religious reasons that reflect a cultural norm in their communities, yet the French government has prohibited wearing religious head coverings in schools. Muslims in France deeply resent this prohibition, claiming that it masquerades as equality while in actuality it forces Muslim women to conform to Eurocentric secular standards not shared by conservative Muslim citizens.

Yet another open question is the liability of international corporations for human rights abuses. A corporation is a structure often given the rights of individual citizens (most notably in the United States), yet that identity is often transnational, and accountability within the corporate structure is unclear. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum was of little assistance in this regard, as it held on very narrow grounds that the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) could not provide a remedy for wrongs committed abroad. Nigerian residents claimed that oil corporations assisted the Nigerian government in committing human rights abuses, and they hoped to use the ATS to hold the corporations involved liable for these human rights violations. On April 17, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the ATS could not offer a remedy for the human rights violations alleged by the Nigerians, as ATS jurisdiction does not extend to civil actions brought against corporations under the law of nations.

People fleeing from conflicts, abuse, violence, and repressive governments in the Middle East and Africa have given rise to a refugee crisis in Europe that exploded in 2015. Migrants set out on dangerous journeys across the seas to reach Europe and request asylum in hopes of better lives. The international community sought to protect the human rights of these desperate refugees and to find a solution for them; however, handling the influx of immigrants into Europe proved difficult. It raised concerns regarding the economic impact of migration and revealed sharply divided views regarding the unchecked flow of immigration.

Battles against inequality and discrimination continue. People have taken to the streets to have their voices heard on issues that involve the preservation of their human rights. In the United States, incidents of white police officers killing young black men and excessive use of force that often proved fatal have led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter protests violence, racism, and human rights violations in the African American community. It started out small, with local demonstrations and boycotts, and quickly spread nationwide.

In November of 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the international community to act collectively against human rights violations around the world. He expressed concern about the deteriorating situation in Syria and called attention to racial violence and incitement. Ahead of Human Rights Day on December 10, outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that recognition of the equal rights of "all members of the human family" is the very basis of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. "Upholding human rights is in the interest of all," the secretary-general said. "Respect for human rights advances well-being for every individual, stability for every society, and harmony for our interconnected world."

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Gale Document Number: GALE|QLMGON254461195