Human Rights
Edexcel RS IGCSE section D

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The specification says:

The issues of, religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings about, and the (differing) attitudes of religious and non-religious people to certain basic human rights: the right to libertyequality before the lawfreedom of religionfreedom of opinion; and freedom of speech. Examples of religious and non-religious people supporting human rights. The (differing) views of religious and non-religious people about whether there are sometimes reasons for limiting any of these basic human rights.  

Christian beliefs/teachings about love and the value of the individual. Examples of Christian attitudes to/support for human rights.

Key vocabulary:

Equality before the law: A person’s right to fair and equal treatment and protection under the law (of a particular country)

Freedom of opinion: A person’s right to hold any opinion they choose

Freedom of religion: A person’s right to follow, or not to follow, a religion

Human rights: The principle of treating all people fairly

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Read the full text of the declaration of human rights here.

Read a slightly abbreviated and simplified version here.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out in thirty articles the rights and privileges that every human being deserves to have protected.

Article 1 states

'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights'

and article 2 continues

'Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.'

The declaration was drawn up in the years following WWII and was intended to prevent events like the holocaust ever occurring again.  It was written by representatives from the USA, the UK, the USSR, France, Chile, Australia, Lebanon, China, and Canada and it was formally accepted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948.  

Note: although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was groundbreaking it was not the first human rights document.  The Magna Carta (signed in 1215) gave the people of Britain rights and made the king accountable to law.  In France the Declaration of the Rights of Man signed in 1789 was a founding document of the Republic of France.  There has also been human rights legislation since the declaration.

All 192 members of the UN have agreed to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights many countries now have their own human rights legislation which is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  However, agreeing to uphold it and actually upholding it are not the same thing.  Reports by groups like Amnesty and Unicef suggest that:

  • torture occurs in over eighty countries 
  • freedom of expression is limited in at least seventy
  • slavery and forced labour is common and includes child slaves.  There are many sex slaves including an estimated 60,000 child prostitutes in the Philippines

Furthermore, the Declaration itself is not legally binding and it can be very difficult to bring about change if countries do not abide by the articles.  

However, the United Nations is able to monitor reported cases of human rights abuses and by doing so can put pressure on a country to improve its human rights record.  The United Nations Commission on Human Rights investigates human rights abuses through the use of 'fact finding missions' and then publishes the findings.  In 1967 they first appointed independent individual experts to the role of 'special rapporteurs' to investigate human rights abuses.  There are currently there are 43 special rapporteurs working in areas like torture and racism.  In 2005 the Commission on Human Rights was replaced by the United Nations Human Rights Council which has much the same function and also uses special rapporteurs.  The Human Rights Council can request the intervention of the Security Council

The security council is made up of representatives from various countries.  Five countries are permanent members and there are ten temporary members who stay for two years each.

The United Nations Security Council has the function of maintaining world peace.  To do so it can authorise the use of violence and could, in principle, use violence in cases of human rights abuses although only if they presented a threat to world peace.

In addition to the UN There are various regional human rights courts.  The European Court of Human Rights (established 1959) enables individuals to take their own countries to court if they feel that their human rights are not being upheld.  If countries ignore the ruling of the Court of Human Rights they can be fined.

Christian teachings:

In the Old Testament many of the Prophets spoke about the importance of social justice.  The prophet Isaiah said that people should help those who are vulnerable.

'Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.' (Isaiah 1:17)

Christians would support the principle of human rights because they believe that God created all people equal and therefore all deserve the same treatment.

 In the letter to the church at Galatia Paul said 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' (Galatians 3:28).  This means that all people are equal and there should be no differences between them.  

Jesus taught his followers to show agape (brotherly love or compassion) for others and set the example of treating those in need with kindness even if they were the outcasts in society.  For example, he healed people with leprosy and healed the Samaritan woman's daughter when most people would have avoided any contact with lepers or with Samaritans.  

Many Christians have been involved in the fight for human rights and most Christians would say that it is important to put their beliefs into practice.

There are many famous teachings that you might already know from your section A work that could be used to support the principle of human rights:

Discussion about human rights:

Reasons to sometimes limit human rights:

Many people who agree with the general principle of human rights might still accept that under certain circumstances it might be acceptable to limit or temporarily remove certain rights.

Topical example:

Detention without Trial:

In Britain the 2006 Terrorism Act allowed police to detain terror suspects for up to 28 days without trial.  The rationale behind this was that

A) Evidence for terrorist activity is often difficult to gather because it is often in encrypted computer files.  Police need 28 days to build a case.

B) Terrorist acts (however unlikely) present a great risk to a large number of people if they do happen.

In the infamous US detention center at Gautanamo Bay (Cuba) holds terror suspects without trial indefinitely.

UK citizen Shaker Aamer has been held at Gautanamo Bay for eleven years without being tried or even charged with anything.

To protect others:

  • Monitoring: Some people feel that cctv and ID cards take away our right to liberty by depriving us of the ability to go about our daily business without being watched.   However, others would say that this is a small price to pay to make people safer from crime.
  • Censorship: Censorship during wartime to preserve the secrecy of military plans might be thought to be necessary to ensure the safety of the armed forces and the country as a whole.
  • Death penalty: One of the arguments in favour of capital punishment is that it protects innocent members of society from habitual violent criminals.  
  • War: Going to war often involves breaching various human rights.  People no longer live in safety, access to adequate food, water and education might be affected and in some cases soldiers might be conscripted against their will.  However, there might be wars that seem necessary despite the abuse of human rights that go with them.
  • Torture:  It is an extreme example, but some people believe that torture and 'advanced interrogation methods' (like sleep deprivation or waterboarding) might be justifiable if used to obtain knowledge of something like terrorist plans.  Harming one person to save others could fulfil the Utilitarian principle that something is morally acceptable if it brings about the greatest good for the greatest number.

As punishment:

  • Those who have committed a crime often have certain rights and liberties removed.  Imprisonment removes the right to liberty.  In Britain criminals do not have the right to vote.  Many people would say that people who break the law have, by their actions, lost their right to certain things that other members of society would take for granted. 

To make society work:

  • Sometimes certain rights like freedom of speech and freedom of religion might have to be moderated in order to avoid offending others.  To an extent this is just another form of protecting others but it is a very specific example which is not based on actual safety but is more about allowing others their liberties too.  For example, people have freedom of speech but they should not use it to offend or abuse others.  People should have freedom of religion but certain religious practices might not work very well in modern society. Hindus traditionally cremate their dead on completely open funeral pyres but UK society does not allow this because it is deemed a potential health risk and might upset local people.  (However, compromise is possible, Hindu Davender Ghai won the right in 2010 to be cremated on a traditional pyre in a building with walls but no roof BBC report)

Other people would argue that it is NEVER right to remove a human right.  The point of a right is that all people have it and it cannot be taken away.  For example; 

Amnesty International is completely opposed to torture and to the death penalty regardless of the circumstances.  They would say that there are other ways of solving the problem and a good outcome does not justify the means used to achieve it.  

Pacifists are against war under any circumstances because they believe that it is always wrong to take life.  

The UK has come under criticism for removing the right to vote from prisoners.  Almost no one object to the idea that dangerous criminals should be prevented from harming others but taking away their right to vote does not help protect society. Therefore it is not necessary in the way that removing their right to liberty is. The European Court of Human Rights said prisoners should be allowed to vote.

Evaluate: Do you think that there are ever good reasons to limit or remove freedom of opinion or freedom of religion?

Are there some opinions that people should not be allowed to hold or which should prevent them from holding certain roles within society.  Should a nazi sympathiser be allowed to be a doctor or a teacher?

Should people ever be prevented from practicing some of the aspects of their religion?  Should parents be allowed to indoctrinate their children?  Should polygamy and/or arranged marriage be permitted?

Reasons why people might disagree with the principle of human rights:

Most people would agree that human rights are important.  However, a minority of people might disagree with the principle.  If we look back to the past there are certainly historic examples of groups or individuals who would disagree with the belief that it is important to treat all people fairly.

Going further:

The philosopher Neitzsche might also disagree with the principle of human rights. He argued that traditional morality benefits the weak but harms the strong who could do better if they were not constrained by moral rules.  He compared the weak majority to 'sheep' with a herd instinct. He said that society also contains 'tigers' who have the right to do what they like to reach their own potential.  He contrasted the traditional 'slave morality' which protects the weak by valuing things like compassion and altruism with what he terms 'master morality' which is about being powerful and valuing success, ambition and ruthlessness.

Historically, various groups of people have been viewed as sub-human by others who see themselves as superior.  

  • The obvious example is the way the Nazi party viewed Jews, gypsies and homosexuals.  
  • Within traditional Hindu society the untouchables (the lowest social caste) were treated as less than human and denied rights given to others.  It was often held that they deserved to be untouchable because they had lived bad previous lives and their karma had resulted in a poor rebirth.  
  • Many feminists would say that historically women were denied rights accorded to men, for example the right to vote.  In a patriarchal society women were usually dependent on man, they had less economic value and they were often believed to be less intelligent and less rational.

Other people might disagree with the principle of human rights purely because they think it is impractical.  

  • It is logistically very difficult to ensure that adequate food, clean water, education, shelter etc is provided for people living in remote, poor and inaccessible areas.  
  • Not all countries agree to abide by the declaration of human rights and it is very difficult for other countries to force a country with a bad human rights record to change its practices.
  • If it is is impossible to enforce human rights then we might argue that the concept is meaningless.

Working for human rights:

Amnesty International:

Amnesty works to end:



      domestic violence

      prisoners of conscience

      death penalty


      arms trade

and many other issues besides.

Amnesty International was set up over fifty years ago to try and promote and safeguard human rights.  They are a multi-national pressure group and have over three million supporters.

Amnesty publishes its own reports about human rights abuses and works hard to raise public awareness of cases in which human rights are not protected.

In addition to publishing reports makes use of the following methods to put pressure on regimes to change.

  • Organises mass public demonstrations and rallies to cause disruption and raise awareness.
  • Initiates boycotts which put economic pressure on corporations or regimes
  • Encourages letter writing campaigns to flood MPs and regime leaders with letters which show the strength of public opinion.
  • Provides legal aid for victims of human rights abuses.

UK Amnesty page

Amnesty International UK

Individuals who have worked to promote human rights

There are many individuals who have worked in some way to campaign for human rights.  Some of the examples are obvious and some are less so.  The examples below are all religious, but many non-religious people also work for human rights.

  • Martin Luther King - campaigned for racial equality and the end of segregation in America.  Used boycotts (bus boycott), rallies and speeches.  Non-violent.  Baptist minister.
  • Mother Theresa - worked to ensure that the poor in Calcutta had access to basic medical care, sanitation and food.  She founded the Missionaries of Charity who now run hospices, children's homes and other care organisations across the world.  Roman Catholic nun.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt - worked for women's rights.  Supported the civil rights movement. First chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Episcopalian.
  • Oscar Romero, William Wilberforce, Trevor Huddleston, Nelson Mandela, Ang San Suu Kyi, Harriet Tubman and many others are also notable for their work on human rights.

Link back to Edexcel RS IGCSE Section D page.

Further reading:

Website including history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and additional material about human rights here.

Amnesty International website here.

50 years of Amnesty celebration video (good overview) here.

Amnesty International youtube channel here.

Human rights violations summary here.