Interpretations of Human Rights


By Sauro Dasgupta

Human Rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behaviour and are regularly protected as natural and legal rights in municipal, national and international law. They are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. They include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, etc.

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Encyclopedia Britannica defines human rights as rights belonging to an individual or group of individuals simply for being human, or as a consequence of inherent human vulnerability, or because they are requisite to the possibility of a just society. Whatever their theoretical justification, human rights refer to a wide continuum of values or capabilities thought to enhance human agency or protect human interests and declared to be universal in character, in some sense equally claimed for all human beings, present and future.

17th-century English philosopher John Locke discussed natural rights in his work, identifying them as being “life, liberty, and estate (property)”, and argued that such fundamental rights could not be surrendered in the social contract. In Britain in 1689, the English Bill of Rights and the Scottish Claim of Right each made illegal a range of oppressive governmental actions. Two major revolutions occurred during the 18th century, in the United States (1776) and in France (1789), leading to the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen respectively, both of which articulated certain human rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 encoded into law a number of fundamental civil rights and civil freedoms.

Philosophers such as Thomas Paine, JS Mill and Hegel expanded on the theme of universality of human rights during the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1849, Henry David Thoreau, wrote about human rights in his treatise ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ which was influential on human rights thinkers.


During World War II, the Allies adopted the Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want—as their basic war aims. The United Nations Charter “reaffirmed faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person” and committed all member states to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

When the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany became fully apparent after World War II, the consensus within the world community was that the United Nations Charter did not sufficiently define the rights to which it referred. A universal declaration that specified the rights of individuals was necessary to give effect to the Charter’s provisions on human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) had 30 articles affirming an individual’s rights which, was the first step in the process of formulating the International Bill of Human Rights, which was completed in 1966, and came into force in 1976, after a sufficient number of countries, had ratified them.

Our interpretations of human rights are constantly evolving. This may be due to changing societal contexts, technology and awareness of who is vulnerable to human rights abuses and to new potentials for violations. Human rights law must be responsive to our changing ideas and understanding of human rights practice. At the same time, laws and professional standards clearly shape rights-based social work practice.


If we consider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a whole, we can view it as encompassing different aspects of a general humanism. Beyond its introductory articles, the Declaration addresses itself (Articles 3-21) to the rights of the individual-his personal freedoms as well as his civil and political rights. Another important segment of the Declaration refers to the economic, social, and cultural rights of man (Articles 22-27). Considering these separate sections as complementary parts of an overall commitment to Human Rights, it is possible to trace a corresponding emphasis in the major ideologies of democracy and socialism.

With respect to individual freedoms, a considerable part of the values enumerated in the Declaration are substantially identical with the theory of individual liberty which constitutes the distinctive ethos of Western democracy. Freedom from arbitrary arrest, equal protection under the law, rights of free expression and opinion these and related rights are bound up with the historical struggles associated with the French and American Revolutions. Rights of self-government acknowledged by the Declaration have their roots in the constitutional democracy identified with Western, especially Anglo-American humanism. Even the economic aspects of Western ideology are reflected in the recognition of the right of each, singly and in association, to own private property.

When considering the ideological basis for the economic, social and cultural rights enumerated in the Declaration, one should acknowledge that they have derived their major impetus from Marxist-Leninist thought and the spirit of the October Revolution. This is not to suggest that the protected values are exclusively dependent upon such inspiration. Present protection of the rights of workers is the result of universal efforts, but it is within socialist countries that their advancement has been the dominant purpose of political activity and governmental policy. Within this ideology the dignity of man is important.

The RATIONALIST APPROACH to human rights is quite advanced and different from the naturalist school of rights. It says that individuals must apply their rationale to situations. If rights were to be implemented, they must be bound by law, failing which they’ll cease to exist. When the US Civil Rights Movement began, the leaders demanded rights for the Blacks that would be legally enforceable and questioned the government’s inability in implementing the Rule of law and the Civil Rights Bill. There must be a LEGALLY BINDING APPROACH AND FRAMEWORK to Human Rights in this manner.

The HUMAN RIGHTS APPROACH to Human Rights states that any issue related to human life should be based equality of human beings, i.e., any issue should be handed from the foundation of interpretation of Human Rights. This approach is for the promotion of Human Rights. For example, the Right to Life should be seen as a legal guarantee. Humans, with and aware of their rights, are the foundation of any transaction. RTI is an example of Human Rights approach to Human Rights of the Government of India.


Every approach encompasses social, political, cultural and economic interpretations. Eg. Xenophobia is associated with social and cultural approach. Human Rights got legal endorsement since 1945.  

The DEVELOPMENT APPROACH to Human Rights is also pertinent here. Development is of three types: Economic development, Growth based development and Need based development. Need based development is critical for human beings. The approach of economic development becomes a facade if there is no profit. Development for economic growth was one of the main reasons behind the formulation of human rights. By the 1980s, the UN recognized the right to development. However, most countries aren’t in favour of this approach.

A LEGAL INTERPRETATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS is the basic interpretation of Human Rights as rights have both positive and negative consequences. This has been significant in the Human Rights regime. Acknowledgment, endorsement and implementation is done through promoting it actively, making people aware that they have the Human Rights. Rights have empowered the state to promote as well as limit the people’s rights. Eg. The state prohibits mob violence as the people don’t have the right to do so. Universality of Human Rights Regime provides a scope to question these actions.

LIBERAL INTERPRETATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS says that they are universal (held by everyone) and inalienable (they continue to exist regardless of whether or not governments recognise them). Classical liberals believe that the list of genuine human rights is quite short. It is comprised primarily of those things that are necessary to preserve life and individual liberty. This list includes the right to be free from torture, slavery, arbitrary arrest or detention. Freedom of association and freedom of speech are also seen as legitimate human rights. But other rights, particularly economic and social rights, are viewed as mere aspirations. The role of the state in fulfilling or protecting human rights should be very limited. States should do only what is necessary to protect life and property. They believe in a minimal state – as political philosopher Robert Nozick puts it, a “night watchman” state – that does not interfere with the privacy of citizens and their freedom to live, work and be educated in any way they see fit.


The existence of laws and normative standards is not enough to promote rights. Law has narrowed conceptualizations of human rights-based social work practice and needs to be replaced with broader conceptualizations of human rights law that allow for fuller social work practices. Human rights are not a settled concept and that evolutions in society require continuing conversations to ensure that human rights are met for all. However, even once rights are guaranteed in law, ongoing work is required to ensure they are realized.

We have interpreted norms of Human rights in its various aspects theoretically. The study remains incomplete if we do not consider it’s applicability in reality. We are to see how Human rights can be framed to ensure gender equity, how children’s educational rights from roots to top can be realised, how gender disparity in education of girls can be removed, how threat to Human Rights Education can be freed from terrorism and crime against women can be stalled. All these are very critical problems which have not been so far adequately reined in by the administrative bodies and the government of our country. Consequently, assault and torture on women at different places namely the events at the Park Street Rape Case, Kamduni Rape and Murder Case, the assaults on the nuns at Ranaghat- all in West Bengal, kidnapping of girls and children across the border have to be witnessed. It may be observed that the movements of refugees and migrants have to be handled with humanitarian approach. The right to move is a universal human right and restriction on their right cannot be subject to policies and measures that violate the dignity of human beings. All these perplexing events have diluted the theoretical idealism of the interpretation of Human Rights. Mere interpretation of Human Rights becomes fruitless if it fails to be rendered in reality.  Despite above all, the glory of human rights has to be sustained by all means and measures.

It’s gratifying to note that the Government of India is taking measures to preserve people’s rights in the country. The disempowering Triple Talaq and Article 370 have been abrogated. Article 370 was extremely discriminatory to the Kashmiri women and it has been rightly abrogated. The government’s efforts to bring about CAA and Uniform Civil Code in India demonstrate its commitment to mainstream the marginalized, protect the people of all rights, bringing about national unity by uniting all under one umbrella and protecting people’s rights in India. Amidst many failures, we will ever aspire to establish the golden rules of human rights as interpreted by several great thinkers, leaving aside all hurdles. Our mandate should be ‘Ensure Human Rights to all and save humanity.

(The Views expressed are those of the author)


Author’s Profile

Sauro Dasgupta is pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a specialisation in International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. He is interested in reading, writing, public speaking and his writings have been published in many important magazines, journals and newspapers. He can be contacted at

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2 thoughts on “Interpretations of Human Rights

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