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What are human rights?

In this section we provide a detailed overview of human rights, including; where they come from and how they can help you.

What are human rights?

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. They can never be taken away, although they can sometimes be restricted – for example if a person breaks the law, or in the interests of national security.

These basic rights are based on values like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and independence. But human rights are not just abstract concepts – they are defined and protected by law. In Britain our human rights are protected by the Human Rights Act 1998.

We’ve produced this short animation to show why human rights are so important and how they protect us in our day-to-day lives.

How do human rights help you?

Human rights are relevant to all of us, not just those who face repression or mistreatment. They protect you in many areas of your day-to-day life: here are just some of the main rights and freedoms they support:

  • your right to a private and family life as well as expressing your opinions, and
  • your right not to be mistreated or wrongly punished by the state. 

Where do human rights come from?

The idea that human beings should have a set of basic rights and freedoms has deep roots in Britain. Landmark developments in Britain include the Magna Carta of 1215, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 and the Bill of Rights of 1689. See the British Library's website for more information on these and other icons of liberty and progress.

The atrocities of the Second World War made the protection of human rights an international priority. The formation of the United Nations paved the way for more than 50 Member States to contribute to the final draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. This was the first attempt to set out at a global level the fundamental rights and freedoms shared by all human beings.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is brought to life in this four-minute video, 'Everybody - we are all born free', produced by Amnesty.

The Declaration formed the basis for the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1950. British lawyers played a key role in drafting the Convention, with Winston Churchill also heavily involved. It protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe, including the UK.

The Human Rights Act 1998 made these rights part of our domestic law. The Act means that courts in the United Kingdom can hear human rights cases. Before it was passed, people had to take their complaints to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.