What are Human Rights Violations?

Updated on June 14, 2017
Eleanor Roosevelt holding a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt holding a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

A Problem of Definition

Once we fully appreciate what human rights are, we can understand what counts as a violation of them. We can, for example, turn to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated in 1948, and read a whole list of rights of individuals that governments are urged not to violate.

We would then get the impression that, in the words of the preamble to the Declaration, human rights are wholly to do with protecting the individual against the “tyranny and oppression” of governments. However, the point being made here is that, without such an agreed statement of rights, individuals might otherwise be forced to rebel against their oppressors.

We have seen a great deal of rebellion in recent years, and I would suggest that human rights violations are perpetrated by many people other than governments. When a Palestinian mother dies in childbirth, along with her child, because roadblocks and diversions prevented her from reaching a hospital in time, we may well see this as a violation of her human rights. But we must also condemn the actions of those whose send rockets into civilian areas of Israeli towns, for the same reasons. Terrorists breach human rights when they seek to defend them by violent acts.

Seeking to define human rights, and thereby what constitutes a violation, can lead us into all sorts of trouble. We have words that sound fine and noble, such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (or “life, liberty, and the security of person” in the UDHR) but then we have to accept that there are exceptions. For example, what happens when one person’s “pursuit of happiness” conflicts with another’s?

When a criminal act is committed, we happily deprive a person of their liberty. In some jurisdictions, a criminal’s life can be forfeited. Have their human rights been violated? Does it matter if they have, because their actions have deserved that forfeiture? The UDHR condemns torture. Is that torture in all circumstances, or are there occasions when it is justified? Some people would say yes, others no. These are indeed murky waters.

Do We Need a New Definition?

Perhaps we need to define human rights differently, as opposed to specifying rights and condemning their violations. Maybe Alexander Hamilton was right, back in 1789, to warn against listing rights, on the grounds that anything not on the list would be regarded as actions that could be taken with impunity by an oppressor.

I would suggest that Person A violates the human rights of Person B when A treats B as being less worthy of respect than himself or herself. This covers not only governments and terrorists, but also every single one of us. You abuse the rights of another when your behaviour towards them depends not on WHO they are, or what they have done, but on WHAT they are.

This covers all the “isms”; racism, sexism, ageism, and the rest. It covers discrimination against people because they are disabled, or gay, or of a different religion, or left-handed (I put that last one in just to cover myself!). When we regard someone else as being less worthy than ourselves, we see them as being less deserving of our attention, and, in a sense, less human.

If we regard the “other” as being less deserving of the rights that we claim for ourselves, we run the risk of abusing that person, and thus violating their rights.

Therefore, the men in Iran who are hanged for being gay, the women in Africa who are genitally mutilated, the prisoners in many countries who are held in foul conditions for months or years without trial, the protesters in Tibet who are beaten and shot, the voters in Zimbabwe whose ballots are not counted, are all victims of human rights violations.

But so is the black man who is the target of a racist joke. So is the disabled person who cannot get into a shop because there is no wheelchair access. So is the woman who is paid less than a man who is doing the same job. So are the lesbian couple who are not allowed to adopt a child.

Yes, I would certainly agree that some human rights violations are far worse than others. But I would argue that if each of us were to look at ourselves and ask if we are ever guilty of abusing the right of others, even if in only a minor way, we will at least make a step in the right direction of stopping the major abuses from taking place.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Nathanville profile image

      Arthur Russ 

      3 years ago from England

      Some very profound thoughts John. As I often say ‘nothings perfect’, but following centuries of evolutionary steps towards a better society at least we have a workable framework upon which to build. It’s like a good marriage, or any strong relationship, it’s something that has to be constantly worked on (often with compromise, and appreciation of each other’s feelings) in order to keep it on track and to progress towards an even better future.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I agree with your last paragraph and especially your last sentence.I think it would be helpful to reduce or remove activities that dehumanize each other. Like playing certain virtual games...replacing more face to face time with social media time....increasing the playing of sports, especially team sports....getting involved in face to face community groups.....having street parties with your neighbours....some things like that...


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, soapboxie.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)