Frequently Asked Questions about Human Rights

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1. What is the UDHR?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. The UDHR contains 30 articles that are widely recognized as having inspired, and paved the way for, the adoption of more than seventy human rights treaties, applied today on a permanent basis at global and regional levels. (UN)

2. When and where was the UDHR signed?

Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, France on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. (UN)

3. Why was the UDHR created?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the result of the experience of the Second World War. With the end of that war, and the creation of the United Nations, the international community vowed to never again allow atrocities like those of that conflict to happen again. World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere. (UN)

4. How are human rights enforced?

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The duty to enforce international human rights law rests primarily with governments themselves. Governments are obligated to protect and promote human rights by prohibiting violations by officials and agents of the state, prosecuting offenders, and creating ways that individuals can seek help for rights violations, such as having competent, independent and impartial courts. A country’s failure to act against abuses by private individuals, such as domestic violence, can itself be a human rights violation. 

However, when governments are responsible for human rights violations, these protections are often inadequate. In these cases, international institutions, like the UN Human Rights Council or the Committee against Torture, have only limited ability to enforce human rights protections. 

More frequently, governments that commit human rights violations are held publicly accountable for their actions by nongovernmental organizations. Some organizations provide direct services such as legal counsel and human rights education. Other organizations try to protect human rights by bringing lawsuits on behalf of individuals or groups.  And organizations such as Human Rights Watch use fact-finding and advocacy to generate pressure on governments to change their policies. (HRW)

5. What happens when human rights are violated?

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Individuals who commit serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, may be prosecuted by their own country or by other countries exercising what is known as “universal jurisdiction.” They may also be tried by international courts, such as the International Criminal Court, which was set up in 2002 to try individuals responsible for very serious crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. (HRW) 

6. When was Human Rights Watch founded?

Human Rights Watch began in 1978 with the creation of Helsinki Watch. By shining the international spotlight on human rights violations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Helsinki Watch contributed to the dramatic democratic transformations of the late 1980s. In 1981, Americas Watch was founded and not only addressed abuses by government forces, but applied international humanitarian law to investigate and expose war crimes by rebel groups.

In rapid succession in the 1980s, Asia Watch (1985), Africa Watch (1988), and Middle East Watch (1989) were added to what was then known as “The Watch Committees.” In 1988, the organization formally adopted the all-inclusive name Human Rights Watch. (HRW)

7. Did Human Rights Watch create human rights? What does Human Rights Watch do?

Human Rights Watch did not create the concept of human rights but rather uses the principles laid out in the UDHR and in international law to guide its work. Since its founding, Human Rights Watch has taken on the responsibility of researching and investigating rights abuses around the world, exposing governments, corporations, and other actors who violate human rights, and advocating to see that policy is changed and justice is served. (HRW)

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