Meaning and Concept of Human Rights

By | September 9, 2020

Meaning and Concept of Human Rights | Overview

Meaning and concept of human rights have been evolved and refined over some time all over the globe. The historical agreement, Magna Carta, is considered to be the first-ever charter on human rights. This article focuses on the meaning of human rights and its concept.

I. Introduction of Human Rights

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

The contemporary society is attaching whole new importance to human rights. Yet, regardless of the growing importance of human rights to the development of society, sociologists have been surprisingly reluctant to engage in human rights research. Indeed, unlike the fields of law, political science, anthropology and history, which have all developed distinct sub-fields of human rights research, the sociology of human rights has only very recently begun to emerge[1]. This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact, that a growing global commitment to protect human rights is perhaps one of the most salient societal evolutions of the post-Second World War era.

Principles of Human Rights

  1. Universal and inalienable
  2. Interdependent and indivisible
  3. Equal and non-discriminatory
  4. Entail both rights and obligations.

II. Sociological Concept of Human Rights

An important factor accounting for the late development of the sociology of human rights is likely to be found in the tradition of sociology itself. Most sociologists researching human rights would agree that in sociology, a certain degree of scepticism exists towards the normative idea of individual rights. The heritage of classical sociologists such as Max Weber, who emphasised the decline of natural law and the concomitant emergence of juridical rationalism, and Karl Marx, who regarded individual rights as mere ideology, has long impeded the development of a sociology of human rights[2].

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that in the post-war period, the sociology of citizenship in many ways came to function as a kind of substitute for sociology of human rights. After all, citizenship provides a theoretically viable and empirically tangible sociological substitute to the abstract and universalist idea of human rights[3].

Distinct sociology of human rights has sharpened its profile over the past decades; nevertheless, there continues to be a debate about disciplinary boundaries in human rights research and the need or desirability of multi-disciplinarity or interdisciplinarity. After all, human rights are no longer the sole domain of lawyers but are now on the research and action agendas for many different disciplines.

Although it is questionable whether true interdisciplinarity exists in the sense of a genuine synthesis between disciplines, human rights scholars frequently draw upon the insights, methodologies, approaches, questions and data from other disciplines. For instance, international relations scholars have made extensive use of constructivist sociological perspectives by linking human rights implementation to socialisation processes or the conformation to a set of norms and rules often described as a world culture’. At the same time, sociology has also borrowed insights from other disciplines such as philosophy, history, political science and law, which have enriched the sociological analysis of human rights.

III. Political Concept of Human Rights

Human rights have become a topic of choice for politicians and diplomats, eager to emphasise the power of ideas to discipline and civilise states. This trend has been given some visibility by sociology of international activism that insists on the role of transnational networks in the development of global legal norms.

Most human rights work, falling within the political constructivist area, generally invoke the same example, viz. the penetration of human rights norms in US foreign policy starting in the mid-1970s. They tell a story that can be roughly summarized as follows[4]:

During the 1970s and the 1980s, the idea of human rights was promoted by networks that coalesce around principled ideas instead of interests open towards social activists, in particular those involved in the civil rights movement, but also characterised by a certain religiosity that translates into a desire to moralise politics. The Carter administration provided a receptive environment for the human rights agenda.

The idea of human rights was thus institutionalised, both in legislative and discursive form, to the extent that it became a central reference of political discourse. While it certainly did not show much interest in human rights, the Reagan administration sought to use the rhetoric of human rights to legitimise its foreign policy and to subordinate human rights to its Cold War objectives. Yet, in doing so, it found itself increasingly constrained to show consistency between its words and its deeds and to operate under the constraint of institutionalised human rights norms, under the pressure of issue networks.

IV. Human Rights in Corporate World

The capacity to abuse, or in general, affect the enjoyment of human, labour and environmental rights has risen with the increased social and economic power that multinational companies wield in the global economy. At the same time, it appears that it is difficult to regulate the activities of multinational companies in such a way that they conform to international human, labour and environmental rights standards. This has partially to do with the organization of companies into groups of separate legal persons, incorporated in different states, as well as with the complexity of the corporate supply chain[5].

In the absence of a business and human rights treaty, a more coherent legal and policy approach is required. Faced with the challenge of how to access the right effectively, the consortium, coordinated by the Globernance Institute for Democratic Governance, became the recipient of a 2013 Civil Justice Action Grant from the European Commission Directorate-General for Justice.

A mandate was thus issued for research, training and dissemination so as to bring visibility to the challenge posed and moreover, to provide some solutions for the removal of barriers to judicial and non-judicial remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuses in non-EU states. The project commenced in September 2014 and over the course of two years the consortium conducted research along four specific lines in parallel with various training sessions across EU Member States.

V. International Human Rights

International human rights law lays down the obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

The core principles of human rights first set out in the UDHR, such as universality, interdependence and indivisibility, equality and non-discrimination, and that human rights simultaneously entail both rights and obligations from duty bearers and rights owners, have been reiterated in numerous international human rights conventions, declarations, and resolutions. Today, all United Nations member States have ratified at least one of the nine core international human rights treaties, and 80 percent have ratified four or more, giving concrete expression to the universality of the UDHR and international human rights.

International human rights law can play an important role in private litigation for human rights abuses by MNCs. International human rights treaties impose obligations on states to prevent and redress corporate human rights abuses within their (human rights) jurisdiction. As public institutions of the state, civil courts adjudicating disputes between private parties are directly bound by these human rights obligations. This includes obligations to ensure victims’ access to justice and to effective civil remedies.

The important role of the state in ensuring effective civil remedies for victims of corporate human rights abuses has been recognized in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)[6].

In particular, states should ‘ensure that they do not erect barriers to prevent legitimate cases from being brought before the courts in situations where judicial recourse is an essential part of accessing remedy or alternative sources of remedy are unavailable’. This also applies to transnational or cross-border litigations where ‘claimants face a denial of justice in a host State and cannot access home State courts regardless of the merits of the claim’.


We are in the 21st century which was supposed to be a world free of human rights violations but currently, we are observing “the worst humanitarian crisis” in Yemen. On the other hand, hundreds of cases arise all over the world related to human rights and their violation. It is essential that it is understood that all humans are connected by the concept of brotherhood and we swim and sink together. To conclude in the word of Karl Marx,

“Society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand”.


[1] David Cameron, speech given on 13 December 2013, Darlington.

[2] Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, Bringing Rights Back Home: Making Human Rights Compatible with Parliamentary Democracy (Policy Exchange 2011).

[3] Othman v. UK (2012) 55 EHRR 1.

[4] Murray Hunt et. al., Parliaments and Human Rights, Hart Studies in Comparative Public Law, 2015.

[5] Juan José Álvarez Rubio and Katerina Yiannibas, Removal of Barriers to Access to Justice in the European Union, 1st ed. 2017.

[6] Murray, supra note 4 at 27.

  1. Human Rights

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