Human Rights
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Introduction: What are Human Rights?

Introduction: The Idea of Human Rights

The era of globalization is also the era of the individual. Revolutionary innovations in technology and telecommunications have empowered the individual, for better or worse, to exercise a previously unthinkable degree of self-expression. The same age that has seen the advent of the threat of global terror networks is also the one that has given birth to YouTube.

This focus on the individual is part of a broader trend that has been underway for centuries and has only intensified since the end of the Second World War. One of its most important manifestations in the twentieth – and now twenty-first – century has been the development of a conceptual and legal framework for human rights as well as a new dimension of civil society dedicated to ensuring that these rights are protected.

Human rights recognize the dignity inherent in every person as a human being, regardless of his or her particular nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, class or any other group affiliation or characteristic. As a result, they assert the moral and legal primacy of the individual over other entities that have “rights,” such as the family and the state.

This Brief will examine the history of human rights and survey some of the key debates about how these rights should be applied in current real-world situations. Two areas of special focus will be human rights and violence ( genocide and torture) and human rights and groups (children, women, indigenous peoples).

Several of the issues raised in the Brief will touch on topics covered in other issue briefs and news analyses on the website. Cross-references to these resources will be provided throughout the Brief.