Human rights are rights which belong to humanity, to all persons of all cultures, nations, states, color, gender etc., whether or not the legal system in which they live explicitly protects these rights. And which belong to all of us equally. No one has more or less rights than the next person.
Human rights are therefore essentially moral claims, and claims which are superior to the legal rules which happen to be in force in the country in which one lives. If necessary, they can be used to challenge these legal rules.
In many countries, these moral claims have been incorporated in the legal rules, often even in the supreme legal rules such as the constitution. This means that people can go to court to have their rights enforced in case of violation, violation either by way actions committed by the government or fellow-citizens, or by way of legislation. In the latter case, a constitutional court may decide that certain laws are invalid and “null and void”.
Different human rights are interdependent. They need each other. Freedom of expression can be quite useless without education and food. But the struggle for social justice also requires freedom of expression.
Rights can be limited. The system of human rights is not a harmonious whole. Rights come into conflict, even in a country that tries its best to respect all rights. Freedom of expression can harm the right to privacy of someone, for instance. Then there has to be a decision: which right takes precedence?
An important characteristic of human rights is their link to democratic government. One right which humans have is political participation. And a democracy is the best way of guaranteeing this participation. Read also art. 3 of Protocol I to the European Convention:
“The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature”.
But the link to democracy goes further. All human rights must be respected, and respected simultaneously, in order to have a proper democratic process. Many tyrannies allow the existence of opposition groups and even, sometimes, a limited degree of political participation, but these groups are harmless because they do not have equal access to publicity, because they do not have the freedom to organize as they wish, or because the people lack the material or intellectual resources necessary to be able to choose wisely among candidates.
It is apparent from this enumeration that the link between democracy and human rights (all human rights) is quite intense. Choosing political leaders is the expression of an opinion. There is obviously a reason for the etymological link between the words “vote” and “voice”. Democracy is the application of human rights to the field of government. Human rights are democratic rights because they are necessary for democracy, just as democracy is necessary for human rights.
The latter is also hinted at in the considerations preceding the articles of the European Convention:
“those fundamental freedoms which . . . are best maintained . . . by an effective political democracy”.
But human rights are not just a necessary prerequisite for democracy. They bring about democracy. When you have the right to express your opinions and to call all kinds of things into question, why would you stop at the government? You will automatically express an opinion on the government and call the government into question. And because it is futile and sad to express an opinion that has no consequences in the real world, people will begin to claim the implementation of their political opinions, which will be the birth of democracy.
Democracy and human rights cannot function separately. They need each other and reinforce each other. Where you have one, you also have the other. And where you have one without the other, there is something missing in what you have. A democracy without human rights is not an ideal democracy, because it cannot function adequately. Human rights without democracy are not complete because one of the most important uses of human rights – calling into question the work of the government and creating a common point of view on the work of the government – is not allowed, or, if it is allowed, does not have any useful consequences because it is impossible to have a democratic vote.
Human rights are not politically or ideologically neutral. They require democracy and are required by democracy. This supports the statement that human rights are not something primarily directed against politics or a way to limit politics. There are an essential part of democratic politics.