What are human rights?

Last updated: 11 8 2021

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

This text is about human rights. You probably recognise the term “human rights”. But what does it mean, and to whom do the human rights apply? Human rights are basically about things you are entitled to as a human being. The rights thus apply for all human beings. For example, you have a right to medical care and education. You have a right not to go hungry. You have a right to have a country to live in and be a citizen of. 

The text explains the history of and background to human rights and what they mean. It also describes the United Nations’ work to defend and uphold human rights.

تصویری از کارمندان صحی، یک بشقاب غذا و یک صنف در مکتب.

Human rights were defined and are defended in response to serious injustices and widespread abuses against people in various parts of the world.

Human rights are based on the idea that all people have universal and equal rights, irrespective of their gender, sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity, or other ways in which they differ from other people.

The background to human rights

The idea that every person has rights is as old as the various world religions. What these rights are, exactly, has been discussed for centuries by people from different cultures and religions all over the world.

But it was only around the middle of the 20th century that the protection of human rights became a global issue. A major war was being fought at the time between countries from all over the world. This war lasted from 1939 until 1945 and is known as the second world war. The second world war was one of the deadliest wars in history. Between 50 and 60 million people died in it. Nazis were in power in Germany during the war. The Nazis did not think that all people were of equal worth.

The Nazis persecuted, enslaved, and murdered six million Jews during the war. The genocide of the Jews has become known as the Holocaust. The Nazis did not only persecute Jews, however. Roma people, homosexuals, people with functional impairments, and people with other views were also among the Nazis' victims. When the war was over, many cities in Europe and Asia were in ruins. People who had survived the war were refugees without shelter or food. Many countries wanted to make sure that what had happened would never happen again. Together, they decided to create the United Nations organisation, or the UN.

The UN was created in 1945 with 51 member states. They founded the UN to prevent future wars but also to protect every person's human rights. Since the creation of the UN, the organisation has worked to ensure peace and to help people in emergency situations. The UN contributes to peacekeeping missions and provides food, water, and medical care to countries at war. Today, the UN has 193 member states.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

One of the UN's first missions was to reach agreement about the rights that all people possess and which no one must deny or take away. In 1948, the UN presented the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was the first international document to clearly describe the freedoms and rights of all people.

Much of what the declaration of human rights says is about preventing the terrible things that happened during the second world war from happening again. Among the things it states are the following:

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
  • You are entitled to a life free from violence.
  • You are entitled to state your opinion and to share it with others.
  • You are entitled to live and to feel safe.
  • You are entitled to work and to rest and to go on leave from work.
  • You are entitled to go to school.
  • You must not be treated worse because you have a particular gender or skin colour.
  • You are entitled to good health and to medical care.
  • You are entitled to get married and start a family.
  • You are entitled to food, clothing, and housing.
  • You are entitled to flee and apply for asylum in another country if your life is in danger.
  • You are entitled to believe in any religion you want to. You are also entitled not to believe in any religion at all.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights consists of a total of 30 articles specifying the rights of everyone.

Conventions protect particularly vulnerable groups

In order to ensure countries observe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN has drawn up rules for how this is to be done. These rules are included in what are known as conventions (or sometimes covenants), which are a kind of agreement between countries. By signing the convention, countries promise to follow the rules in it. There are several conventions, each of which contains a number of rights in a certain area.

The first UN conventions were drawn up almost at the same time as the universal declaration and were about the rights of refugees, the obligation to prevent genocide, and about banning discrimination on the basis of race.

In the 1960s, the UN drew up the covenant on civil and political rights. At the same time, it also drew up the covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights. But even though the UN declared that all people should have the same rights, not all countries followed the rules. It became known in the 1970s and 80s, for example, that several countries still accepted child marriages and allowed girls to be banned from attending school. The UN therefore drew up special conventions on the elimination of discrimination against women and on the rights of the child.

Other important issues around which the UN has drawn up rules include the prohibition against torture and the rights of persons with disabilities.

The UN has also defended the rights of LGBTI people (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people).

Sweden has signed many conventions in the following areas:

  • The rights of the child
  • The elimination of all forms of discrimination against women
  • The elimination of all forms of racial discrimination
  • The rights of persons with disabilities
  • Civil and political rights
  • Economic, social, and cultural rights
  • The prevention of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Questions to think about

    Consider what the differences are between a convention and a law.

    What do you think happens when a country breaks promises it made in signing a convention?

Laws protect our human rights

If a public authority or a private individual violates human rights, it is primarily the responsibility of the state to provide help to the victim. In Sweden, human rights are protected through several laws. The Swedish state must guarantee everyone's fundamental liberties and protect them against violations. The state must also provide for people's fundamental needs and strive for the equal treatment of everyone regardless, for instance, of what their gender or skin colour is.

Here are some examples of laws that protect our human rights:

  • The Swedish constitution protects several rights. For example, it prohibits capital punishment, torture, and corporal punishment. The constitution also states that a person suspected of a crime is entitled to a fair trial.
  • The Education Act (Skollagen) states that all children are entitled to an education.
  • The Code regulating Parenthood and Guardianship (Föräldrabalken) and the Child Convention describe the responsibilities of parents and public services for children and protect children's rights.
  • The Discrimination Act (Diskrimineringslagen) forbids discrimination against people based on their religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnic group, functional impairment, or age.
  • The Health and Medical Care Act (Hälso- och sjukvårdslagen) states that everyone who lives in Sweden is entitled to receive care. If you have a residence permit, you have the same right to medical care as Swedish citizens have.

Human rights are also protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Refugee Convention.

The European Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights contains articles formulating the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The convention states that no one may be subjected to torture or discrimination and that everyone is entitled to practise their religion.

The European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated into Swedish law. This means that all laws and decisions in Sweden must comply with the articles of the convention.

There is a special court of law you can turn to if your rights have been violated. It is called the European Court of Human Rights.

The Refugee Convention

It is a human right to flee to another country if your life is in danger. To provide protection for refugees, there is a convention known as the Refugee Convention. It states that no refugee will be forced to return to a country where they risk being killed, jailed, or subjected to persecution.

There are specific rules for determining who is a refugee. You are a refugee if you can show that you have reason to fear persecution due to your:

  • race
  • nationality
  • religious or political views
  • gender
  • sexual orientation
  • or because you belong to a specific group in society.

The persecution may be by the authorities in a person's home country. It may also be that the authorities are unwilling or unable to protect the person against threats and persecution by others.

Violations of human rights

Many countries around the world violate human rights. Violations of human rights also occur in countries that are not at war. Many people are subjected to persecution and oppression. Many countries are so poor that they cannot afford to provide for the rights of all people.

The UN has specially appointed groups of people who have to ensure that countries follow the rules in the conventions. If a country is not following the rules, these groups can criticise the country and tell it how it needs to improve. These groups are known as monitoring committees. For example, Sweden has been criticised by the UN for deporting refugees to countries where they risk being subjected to torture or capital punishment.

Many countries in the world have improved their record on human rights. Some examples of this are that fewer people are executed and that more people have access to education and medical care. But there is still a lot left to do in order for all people to have the human rights they are entitled to.

What do human rights mean for people's everyday lives?

We use our rights every day. We can complain if we do not get what we are entitled to. That is why it is important to know what rights you have.

When you or your children go to school or university, you are exercising your right to education. Schools and universities are free of charge in Sweden. If you become ill and need an operation, you do not need to worry about how much the operation will cost. The right to equal medical care in Sweden means that we pay for everyone's medical care together, with our taxes.

You should not have to be afraid that the police are going to stop you or arrest you unless you are suspected of a crime. If you are accused of a crime, a lawyer will be appointed for you free of charge, as everyone must be equal before the law and have equal opportunities to defend themselves.

You have the right to start a group or an association, and many associations get financial support from the state. Do you want to start an association for sports or culture, for instance? Or perhaps a study group to discuss politics? You have the right to arrange meetings and form groups and discuss whatever you like.

Your rights also apply to your working life. If an employer does not want to hire you because he does not like your religion, for instance, you can get help from an anti-discrimination bureau. The staff there can give you advice and support if you have been subjected to discrimination. They can also help you report what happened.