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Who Defines Human Rights?

Updated: Apr 15

When you hear the term ‘Human Rights’, what is the first thought that comes to mind? For many people, human rights are those granted specifically in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 by the United nations. The UDHR represents a logical and concise explanation for what Human Rights are, what they represent, and how they should be implemented. This represented the beginning of the modern Human Rights regime which still holds true to this day in which all states are legally bound to uphold these predetermined rights which are universal in the sense that they belong to all people regardless of nationality. While the UDHR consolidated and created a legally enforceable definition of Human Rights, it did not represent the first discussion of Human rights as a philosophical or legal concept.

The origins of Human Rights from a philosophical perspective cannot be traced back to a single place or time in history, as different cultures created their own interpretations of how people were to be treated and why. The concept of all men being born equal as a law of nature was declared by Jurist Ulpian in Ancient Rome, often Greek Stoicism is attributed as the first instance of people being considered equal inherently by birth as opposed to by legal decree. While key texts such as Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes brought about the idea that people are not just naturally equal in their existence, but also in their qualities both positive and negative. Religion also played an important role in defining what exactly makes people equal, and what equality entails from a quality of life and societal standpoint.

What we consider today to be Human Rights originally arose from the philosophical assumption that every person is equal, and from this it was determined that legally all people are entitled to a basic quality of life. This was agreed upon by the international community, essentially codifying what previously had been an abstract concept only implemented in specific instances on an individual basis. While international agreements on the treatment of people in wartime had been agreed upon on a limited scale before the UDHR, this did not satisfy the criteria of universality which forms the fundamental basis of Human Rights. Therefore it would appear that the question of what are Human Rights and why they should exist has already been solved as it is (on paper at least) universal. Despite this, there is a growing discontent not over the concept of Human Rights, but what those rights represent and the way they are enforced.

If Human Rights universality has already been agreed upon, then what is the problem? Depending on who you ask, this might come in the form of the inadequacy of enforcement mechanisms, or quite the opposite. There has been a recent emphasis on the claim that Human Rights as outlined in the UDHR are not at all universal, rather a western creation which fails to take into account the existence of conflicting cultural beliefs and practices from non-western countries. The specifics of these claims are a topic which requires its own in depth explanation, a key takeaway from this discussion is the fact that while legally, Human Rights are a defined, universal, and enforceable reality, the philosophical debate is far from reaching a unanimous consensus.

To get back to the critical question of who defines Human Rights, there must be a key distinction between the theoretical, the philosophical, and the reality of Human Rights as separate entities. The UDHR is still the law of the land and internationally enforceable to varying degrees of success and effectiveness, that is the reality. Theoretically, Human Rights are universally recognized as law and therefore any violations will be stopped and perpetrators punished. Philosophically, Human Rights are far from universally recognized or accepted in their current form and historically have never been unanimously agreed upon. If this position is to be taken seriously, then the reality is that everyone is entitled to define Human Rights from a philosophical point of view which has the potential to influence the theoretical and the reality. However, universality is not possible on a philosophical basis, and Human Rights can only be defined and widely recognized in a legal capacity. So who gets to define Human Rights? Effectively, that job goes to diplomats, lawyers, and politicians.

Written by Jacob Coffelt


Jacob Coffelt is a second year Human Rights and Multilevel Governance Masters student at the University of Padova. Obtained an Undergraduate Degree in International Relations and Political Science at the American College of Thessaloniki in Greece, and is currently working as an academic research assistant at Istanbul Kültür University in Turkey.


Gordon, J., 1997. The Concept of Human Rights: The History and Meaning of its Politicization. Brook. J. Int'l L., 23, p.689.


Sundaramoorthy, L., 2016. Is the idea of human rights a universal concept?. Merci,(2).

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