The Scope of Human Rights

The scope of human rights was globally agreed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which has considerable legitimacy.

The UDHR has a wide scope and therefore provides a useful starting point to define human rights.  It was drafted as a result of international negotiations after the Second World War and it was ratified by the UN General Assembly, so it has a high degree of political legitimacy although it was not a legally binding document.  It is listed in its entirety in this book (Appendix 1).  It can be broadly categorised into moral, political, legal and socio-economic rights – with many of its Articles having several overlapping aspects.

It can provide an impartial measure of a government’s moral authority.  Adam Smith argued for the value of impartiality in setting moral standards, in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

 “We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it.” [III, i, 2]

Amartya Sen quoted Smith in chapter 6 of his book, The Idea of Justice, when making the argument for countries to take account of views from outside their own borders.  Sen saw compliance with international human rights as a test of a government’s moral legitimacy.

The scope of human rights in the UDHR was divided into two separate treaties to turn it into International Human Rights Law:

“The Human Rights Commission produced two major documents: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both became international law in 1976. Together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these two covenants comprise what is known as the “International Bill of Human Rights.”

The ICCPR focuses on issues such as the right to life, freedom of speech, religion and voting. The ICESCR focuses on food, education, health and shelter. Both covenants proclaim these rights for all people and forbid discrimination.”

Further treaties followed, such as the European Convention on Human Rights.  Although they all enjoy considerable political support, none of them has been adopted by every country in the world.  American Treaty Ratification is incomplete, for example:

“The United States has played a critical role in drafting numerous international treaties and documents on human rights. However, it has ratified or is otherwise bound to only a handful of treaties in their entirety, including the following:

●  Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention)

●  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

●  International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)

●  Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)”

This illustrates the fragmented national political adoption of human rights.  When the term ‘human rights’ is used in this book, it normally refers to the UDHR – which can be regarded as an overarching benchmark of acceptability.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4241a.htm