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Over sixty years ago, in 1948, men and women from all over the world met in Paris to offer the world the extraordinary vision of a fair and peaceful world: they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This document centres on the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” of all individuals and says everyone is entitled to rights and freedoms, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion,” or any other criteria. This is precisely what is meant by human rights: human rights are rights to which every individual is entitled, merely by dint of being a human being – irrespective of characteristics which might make us humans different from each other.
International Civil Covenant and International Social Covenant
The Universal Declaration, along with the two human rights covenants of 1966 – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – forms the so-called “International Bill of Rights”. They are supplemented by a series of other human rights agreements setting out regulations protecting against discrimination, for instance discrimination against women and racial discrimination, or anchoring key aspects of human rights protection in legal agreements, for example the absolute ban on torture or slavery. These agreements and their Optional Protocols, which contain details like complaints procedures or special protection mechanisms, have now been ratified by many states.
European Human Rights Convention
At European level, the 1950 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms went so far as to enable legal claims to be enforced by the courts. Similarly, the Treaty of Lisbon, in force since December 2009, contains clear commitments to human rights.
Indivisibility of human rights
Human rights are often divided into three generations: the first comprises civil and political rights – for example, the human right to life and physical integrity, to freedom and property, to freedom of opinion and association or freedom of religion or belief. Economic, social and cultural rights are sometimes referred to as the second generation: what is meant is the human right to an adequate standard of living, for instance, including adequate food, the right to work and adequate pay, the right to form trade unions, special protection for families, pregnant women, mothers and children, the right to the best available healthcare, the right to education or the right to participate in cultural life. These are supplemented by a third generation of collective rights, such as the right to development or to peace.
However, this approach – dividing human rights into these three generations – is now giving way to a deeper understanding of the true indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights. Political and civil rights cannot be enjoyed if a person does not have at least a minimum economic subsistence. Vice versa, economic and social gains must not be achieved at the expense of freedom.
Germany’s Basic Law Germany commits itself to human rights in its national law, too: Article 1 of the Basic Law states “(1) Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. (2) The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.” Germany is a signatory to virtually all United Nations human rights agreements, and is committed to all key European human rights standards.
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