Protecting Individual and Group Rights - For Students, Educators, and Trainers

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Eamon Aloyo


In this section we focus on human rights — what they are, how they evolved, the reasons why these rights are violated, and what can be done to prevent abuses or respond to them once they have occurred. Almost all of the topics remain vibrant areas of debate, and a great many scholars are working on empirical and normative questions related to them.

There is no consensus on what is or is not a human right. James Nickel defines human rights as "political norms dealing mainly with how people should be treated by their governments and institutions." He adds seven other characteristics of human rights that can be summarized briefly as follows: they are (1) universal (2) focused on individuals (3) urgent (4) moral norms (5) possessed by all humans. They are subjects of (6) international concern and (7) even enforcement.

Other scholars drop some of these characteristics or add others. Some people don't even believe that human rights exist. That view was advocated by Bentham's late 1700s utilitarian writings and is echoed in contemporary times as exemplified by Sonu Bedi's 2009 book.

Nevertheless, violations of human rights are one of the most pressing problems in the world today, and one of the greatest causes of human suffering. Because human rights are such a broad category, many if not most human abuses are human rights violations. Genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, domestic repression, civil war, and interstate war are some examples of human rights abuses.

One leading explanation of why powerful people violate human rights is rational choice theory. If leaders can most easily violate individuals' human rights to achieve their goals, and if the costs are minimal or nonexistent, they may decide to take that route. Environmental degradation at the local level and at the global level can also cause human rights violations.

To just get a glimpse of what violations of human rights do to people, you can read survivors' accounts of the Rwandan genocide here or here or Primo Levi's memoir of the Holocaust. And, remember, these are the people who survived.

Key concepts and theories

Defining Human Rights

As we said above, there is no agreed-upon definition of human rights. They can be thought of as rights that protect especially urgent moral concerns of humans that are: (a) universal, i.e., applying to every human and (b) apply equally, meaning everyone has the same human rights — to life and liberty, for example. Notice that "inalienable" is not included in the definition.

Many people believe that at least some human rights can be forfeited by certain actions, especially by committing crimes, and that some human rights can be overridden under certain rare circumstances. For instance, it might be morally acceptable to quarantine someone for a limited period of time if she is infected with a highly contagious deadly disease, although generally people are thought to have the right to liberty.

The theories of human rights' origins are contentious. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." It goes on to designate a long list of rights including:

  • the right to life, liberty, and security of person,
  • the right not to be tortured,
  • the right to due process and equal treatment before the law,
  • freedom of thought, opinion, expression, conscience, and religion,
  • the right to participate in his or her countries' government
  • the right to work, and an adequate standard of living

Others suggest that human interests, needs, reason, autonomy, equality, and capabilities are important and universal enough to be protected by human rights, or they just assert that everyone deserves such rights. Another strategy, popularized by Charles Beitz (2009), is to take the language and everyday usage of human rights to argue that this practical usage should be the sense in which we understand and accept them.

Another controversy focuses on human rights' universality. For instance, the so called "East Asian" challenge suggests that some human rights should not apply to Asian societies because human rights should be culturally relative, not universal. One response to this challenge is to narrow the list of human rights, such as those included in the UDHR. In this way countries could still practice many of their traditions and comply with international human rights standards at the same time. More information on the definition of human rights can be found in the following works:

  • James Nickel provides an extensive overview of theories of human rights in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Patrick Hayden's 2001 edited volume is an excellent overview of seminal pieces on the theories and criticisms of human rights.
  • Charles Beitz (2009) argues for a practice-based model of human rights. Adam Etinson reviews it in Res Publica.
  • Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum are the leading proponents of the "capabilities approach" to human rights.
  • Henry Shue (1980, 2nd Edition: 1996) argues in a widely cited book that "basic rights" are those rights that are required to exercise all other rights. Basic rights include the rights to security and subsistence. James Nickel and Lisbeth Hasse review this book in the California Law Review in 1981.
  • Wililam Talbott, a University of Washington professor who specializes in human rights, posts his lecture notes about human rights.
  • James Griffin presents an autonomy based account of human rights and his book is one of the leading recent contributions. University of Washington professor William Talbott reviews Griffin's book in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review .

Group Rights

Also known as "third generation rights," group rights are held by a group. Although this may seem obvious, it is important to mention because one way that group rights are often incorrectly used is by thinking that they are just individual rights of certain groups such women, gays, religious minorities, and so forth. It is not that these groups lack rights — they have the same human rights as every other human — but group rights refer to rights of groups as such. For instance, the right to collective self-determination, and the right of a group to use its own language in education and public affairs are group rights.

  • James Nickel provides a short discussion of group rights within the category of human rights here.
  • Will Kymlicka is one of the leading theorists of group rights and argues that some group rights can be compatible with liberalism.

History of Human Rights

The origins of human rights are in natural rights which can be defined as rights that are self-evident and belonging to every human being. The idea of human rights, which are rights that are codified in law, developed over recent centuries. Since WWII they have spread to languages and cultures around the world. The transition from the idea of natural right to human rights began around the French and American revolutions in the late 18th century. Those revolutionaries spoke and wrote of the "rights of man" and "unalienable rights." It is not until after World War II, however, that human rights gained contemporary prominence.

Goaded on by the tragedy and shock of the Holocaust, reformers wrote the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, and states signed on to support institutions and international law treaties aimed in large part at protecting individual human rights (e.g. UN Charter and Genocide Convention ). Now there is an extensive system of international human rights law through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), both of which came into force in 1976. More on this history of human rights can be found below:

  • Moira Rayner provides a concise history of human rights.
  • James Nickel provides an excellent overview of theories of human rights at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He also provides an overview of the international human rights law.
  • Lynn Hunt (2007) argues that human rights developed over time from the French revolution until today. Gordon S. Wood, a professor of history at Brown University, reviews Hunt's book in the New York Times Book Review here . Hunt has a lecture related to her book on YouTube here.
  • Micheline Ishay (2005) presents a general overview of the history of human rights. Anard Bertrand Commissiong reviews it here.
  • Samuel Moyn (2010) argues that human rights gained common usage in the 1970s, not right after World War II, which is the commonly accepted notion. Belinda Cooper reviews Moyn's book in the New York Times Book Review here.
  • The Human Rights Education Association presents an overview of human rights education.

Why and How are Human Rights Violated?

The reasons why human rights violations occur are also contested. Some theorists emphasize rational reasons for why leaders violate others' human rights, whereas others rely on symbolic politics and ethnic narratives to help explain abuses of human rights (Kaufman 2006).

Human rights are violated in a great number of ways. Genocidewar crimes, crimes against humanity, aggression, sexual abuse including rape, and torture are some of the most prominent ways individuals' human rights are violated. But if we take the rights in the UDHR, human rights are violated in numerous other ways, every day. There is not enough space to list all of the ways human rights are violated according to UDHR, but a few include violations of due process, freedom of movement, just and favorable conditions of work and protection against unemployment, a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one's family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and more (See the UDHR 1948). In addition, sanctions can cause human rights violations. For instance, according to Joy Gordon, from 1990 to 2003, the US backed UNSC sanctions against Iraq killed half a million children, and destroyed much of the Iraqi economy.

Below we list a few of the leading examples of how human rights are violated, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, sexual violence, and governance failures.


  • Diane F. Orentlicher, a respected scholar, gives a short overview of genocide here.
  • How to define genocide is somewhat contentious, although most people accept the definition enshrined in international law through the 1948 Genocide Convention and the 1998 Rome Statute of the ICC. Genocide differs from other international crimes primarily because of the special intent requirement. To be convicted of genocide, someone must intend to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious or group in whole or in part. This intent makes it different from crimes against humanity or war crimes. Notice that some categories of groups are excluded: political, gender, age, and class, for instance.
  • Whether there is legal obligation on UN member states to respond if genocide is ongoing or after it ends is debatable. The relevant language in the 1948 Genocide Convention states that parties are legally bound to "undertake to prevent and to punish" the crime of genocide. (Article 1). But some, like Dr. Gregory Stanton, argue that there is no legal obligation on states because of the vague language of1948 document.
  • Samantha Power (2002) argues in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, that failures of imagination and political interests have allowed genocide to continue. She makes similar arguments in a shorter article as well.
  • Genocide Watch is an organization that tracks and attempts to prevent genocide, and has a number of useful articles on genocide and its prevention.

Crimes Against Humanity

  • Cherif Bassiouni, a highly regarded international lawyer, authored a short article on crimes against humanity.
  • Jonathan Glover uses philosophy and psychology to examine history and attempts to explain many of the worse cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other abuses of the 20th century. Steven Pinker reviews his work in the New York Times here.

War Crimes

  • The Crimes of War Project is an excellent resource for overviews of war crimes.
  • The crime of aggression is one of the most serious international crimes, but it has not often been prosecuted. However, it was just added to the purview of the International Criminal Court in 2010. (See Crime of Aggression)

Sexual Violence

  • Sexual violence is one of the least emphasized aspects of human rights violations, but it occurs in both war and peace.
  • Systematic rape is often used as a weapon of war.

Bad Governance

  • Rudolph J. Rummel argues and documents that "democide" (government killing) is one of the most deadly forms of violence.
  • Christian Davenport is a leading scholar on domestic repression and the role democracy plays in preventing domestic repression.

Economic Sanctions

Many people believe that economic sanctions are more benevolent than armed intervention, but they too can cause human rights violations.For example,, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War as a way to end the war yet, according to Joy Gordon (p. 33) these sanctions resulted in the death of approximately half a million Iraqi children.

Human Rights Protection

Methods of guaranteeing human rights vary with the sort of human right being violated, and how the violation occurs. Generally, states are assumed to have primary responsibility for guaranteeing their citizens' human rights, but, at the same time, states are often the worst violators of human rights. Since World War II, however, states have consented to a number of institutions and treaties that limit their sovereign internal and external powers. For instance, the UN Charter, the Genocide Convention, and the International Criminal Court all limit the powers states have. These supranational institutions both place limits on what states can legally do, and provide some remedies for violations of human rights. These remedies range from authorizing humanitarian intervention under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to peacekeeping missions to authorizing the arrest of a head of state. Recent normative developments, such as the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, may create higher costs for states that abuse their citizens and may provide another justification for international humanitarian intervention, as happened in Libya in the spring of 2011.

Another means of protecting human rights originates with non-state actors such as NGOs. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch expose violations of human rights, which put pressure on governments to change their practices. Citizens themselves sometimes organize to overthrow human-rights violating regimes such as occurred in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.

What is being done to understand the nature of the problem?

It is often difficult to collect good data in the locations where the most human rights violations occur. Nonetheless, various organizations produce at least a rough sense of the magnitude and type of human rights violations in most corners of the globe.

  • The US State Department compiles data regarding human rights abuses.
  • Amnesty International compiles an annual report on human rights around the globe.
  • Polity is a widely respected measure of democracy used by political scientists among others, which measures some human rights.
  • Minorities at Risk is a project run by professor Ted Gurr at the University of Maryland that measures the security rights of individuals at risk and that has data sets available for academic research.
  • Freedom House is another widely respected resource for information on civil and political right around the world.

Many studies are also being done to assess what causes human rights violations, which suggests what can be done to prevent them. For instance,

  • Christian Davenport is a leading scholar on domestic repression and the role democracy plays in preventing domestic repression.
  • 2008 and a 2009 study found that economic sanctions increase repression in the target country.
  • In a 1994 study Steven Poe and C. Neal Tate used a 153 country sample from the 1980s to examine what causes violations of human rights. They found that participation in a civil or international war, and level of democracy, have a statistically and substantively significant effect on repression. In a 1999 article they and coauthor Linda Keith extend their data from 1976 to 1993 and some of their finding change. There they find that leftist states and former British colonies are less repressive, whereas military regimes are more repressive.
  • David Cingranellia and Mikhail Filippov assess how electoral rules impact protection of human rights in a 2010 Journal of Politics piece and find that "other things being equal, there is higher average respect for physical integrity rights in countries where all members of parliament are elected through low magnitude proportional representation districts, and where voters can cast a vote for individual candidates."

What is being done to mitigate or otherwise address the problem?

  • Civilian Capacity for International Peace Building Initiatives (CIVCAP) provides a rich set of documents about best practices relating to human rights protection.
  • The Peacebuilding Initiative has a number of human rights documents useful to practitioners (although they stopped updating in 2009).
  • is a human rights-specific search engine that says it searches over 5000 human rights websites. Searches can be limited by type of source (academic or NGO) or particular source organizations.
  • Please see the section on violence for more information on how to prevent violence.

Are there any studies that evaluate these efforts?

  • In a 2010 Journal of Politics paper, Daniel Hill used a sophisticated statistical technique to assess the effects of treaty ratification on protection of human rights. He found that treaties do matter, but not always in the ways one might expect.
  • Harvard professor David Kennedy has an important piece reflecting on the costs and limitations of human rights intervention in an article entitled "The International Human Rights Movement: Part of the Problem?"
  • Christian Tomuschat's 2008 book Human Rights: Between Idealism and Realism has a detailed description of many different approaches to human rights' protection and prosecuation and assesses the relative merits and pitfalls of these various approaches. A short description and review of this book is available here.
  • The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change evaluates the impact of international human rights norms on domestic governance and behavior in eleven different countries worldwide. A short description/review is found here.

What are the major areas of debate and research relating to this topic?

Researchers want to understand what causes human rights violations. Their research is typically broken down into a number of specific areas, such as the causes of torture, genocide, crimes against humanity, and so forth. Another area of research is not empirical, but is rather philosophical. Researchers ask what can justify (or undermine) human rights? Are human rights universal? How can proponents of human rights deal with cultural and religious differences? Finally, a third area of research bridges the empirical and the normative by asking how human rights can be better protected. Both those working on empirical questions and those working on philosophical questions have proposed innovative solutions to human rights problem.