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Introduction to Human Rights

Once human rights advocates have a have a good understanding of their role, it’s important to understand the full scope of human rights, basic human needs, and accessibility and inclusion guidelines HRAs are called to defend. 

Universal Purpose

Human rights advocates tend to share a common understanding that there is a universal purpose to human life. Regardless of our religious or spiritual beliefs, most HRAs agree the purpose of human life is for each person to reach their own unique highest and fullest potential, whatever that may be. Human rights advocates also acknowledge that each person has the right to define for themselves what “highest and fullest potential” means to them. In fact, it is this common understanding that is the underlying reason for our work. HRA’s recognize that in order for human beings to truly reach their own unique highest and fullest potential, they must have the opportunity to be safe and secure in their human rights, have access to their basic needs, and be free from marginalization and exclusion.

Universal Human Rights

Human rights can be viewed through a number of lenses. Human rights advocates in the United States of America often focus on four (4) categories of human rights to guide their work. These include: Universal/Inalienable Rights; Civil Rights; U.S. Constitutional Rights and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This section focuses on Universal/Inalienable Human Rights – Those that are inherent to each person from the moment of birth. They are not granted by any government or group, nor through a majority rules process. They exist whether or not they are popular, even if governments try to take them away. In fact, inalienable human rights are so critical, violations often lead to severe and long-term mental, emotional and physical trauma. The five (5) universal rights include: Dignity and Worth; Autonomy; Right to Life; Right to Liberty; and the Right to Pursuit of Happiness.

Dignity and Worth

All human beings have inherent dignity and worth regardless of their perception of themselves or the perception of others. Even when a person has made a terrible mistake, a person has the right to be treated with dignity and respect. In fact, demonstrating the importance of dignity and respect can help a person grow and overcome their mistakes. 

Bodily Autonomy

All human beings have complete ownership of their own body, mind and soul. No one ever has the right to make decisions about someone else’s body, mind or soul without their explicit consent. Explicit consent means the person has intentionally and with full information agreed to something free from coercion, manipulation, exploitation, or threats of violence or removal of basic needs, such as food, water, housing, employment, or access to public accommodations. 

Right to Life

From the moment of birth, every human being has the right to exist. No one has the right to intentionally take or end another person’s life. Just because a government passes laws that justify taking someone else’s life, these laws do not overrule a person’s right to be alive. 

Right to Liberty

Each person has the right to liberty and freedom. This means each person has the right to experience life, grow, learn and contribute to the world around them in ways that are meaningful to themselves. 

Right to the Pursuit of Happiness

Human beings have the right to the “pursuit of happiness”. This means each person has the right to explore, identify and do that which brings them joy, peace, and contentment. This includes the right to take risks, and to do things that might not be deemed healthy for them, as they explore the world around them. This is their life. 

Civil Rights

Human rights advocates also have a particular investment in protecting, defending and expanding civil rights. The purpose of Civil Rights is to ensure every human being has the ability to participate freely in their community. Specifically, Civil Rights Laws are designed to protect everyone from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. They provide an important tool for preventing marginalization, discrimination and exclusion. Generally speaking, Civil Rights should ensure: 

  • All human beings have the right to secure employment and volunteer opportunities based solely on their qualifications and experience; 
  • All human beings have the right to obtain for themselves and their families adequate housing of their choice in the open market based solely on their ability to pay; and 
  • All human beings have the right to shop at stores, eat at restaurants, stay at hotels and participate in community events and activities that are open to the public. 

Human rights advocates, and many others, have fought hard for generations to secure and advance civil rights protections.

For further studies and for your own tool kit as a Human Rights Advocate, you may wish to learn more about the Women’s Voting Rights Act , the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Loving v. Virgina and Obergefell v. Hodges. In addition, you may wish to explore other important Congressional Acts and U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have paved the way for Civil Rights. 

U.S. Constitutional Rights

In the United States, individual rights or constitutional rights were initially enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which you can learn more about here. In addition, several amendments have been made to the U.S. Constitution to further guarantee and protect human rights and liberties. 

While the U.S. Congress has the ability to pass certain laws and regulations, the U.S. Supreme Court is responsible for making sure laws passed by Congress do not violate the United States Constitution or the rights of individuals – particularly those articulated in the Bill of Rights. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court may also intervene when state and local laws violate the U.S. Constitution.

When the Supreme Court makes a ruling on an issue, they issue an opinion which can be considered a court-affirmed right. Here, we’ll review a few of the most commonly referenced rights that have been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court and are likely to be relevant in your day-to-day role. (Note: This list is not exhaustive, and continuous learning about U.S. Supreme Court rulings can be beneficial to your role as a human rights advocate.)

Religious Freedom

Human beings have a right to practice or believe in the religion of their choice, or to have no religious practices or beliefs at all. Their religious or spiritual beliefs are their own. At the same time, human beings have the right to be protected from other people’s religious beliefs infringing on their own human rights, freedoms, beliefs, civil rights or access to basic needs. 

Freedom of Speech

Human beings have a right to free speech and may say things and express themselves without fear of government retaliation, so long as the speech is not a credible threat or credible call to action to harm someone else. However, it should be noted that other people who are not in the government still have the right to take offense to what is said, and to react or respond in a defensive manner.

Freedom to Protest

Human beings have the right to protest their governments and demand reforms, particularly if their inalienable human rights have been violated. This can include holding a peaceful assembly or demonstration, or directly petitioning the government, among other actions. 

Gun Rights

Human beings have a right to own a gun for the purpose of self defense, to go hunting for food, to participate in a government-sanctioned militia, or to participate in various sporting activities; Simultaneously, human beings have the right to be free from gun violence and intimidation.


Human beings have a right to privacy, particularly from the government. The government, nor the police have the right to search their home, papers, email, computers, vehicles, phones or any of their personal property, unless they have a warrant that was issued by a judge and that specifically describes the place to be searched and the specific things to be seized. Even if a warrant is issued, human beings have the right to be protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures”. This is because human beings have the right to be treated with dignity and respect at all times and cannot be considered guilty of a crime unless they have been convicted by jury. Many other privacy rights have been further institutionalized and recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rights of the Accused

If accused of a crime, human beings have a right to remain silent and can never be compelled to be a witness against themselves. Human beings have the right to due process of law, meaning that all proper steps must be taken by the government in all criminal proceedings. Human beings also have the right to a speedy and public trial, and to have their case heard in front of an impartial jury. They have the right to face their accuser and they have a right to defense counsel, and to call witnesses in their favor. They also have a right to be protected from excessive bail, excessive fines, and all forms of cruel or unusual punishment. In most places in the United States, human beings also have the right to enter an Alford plea

Equality and Fairness

Human beings have a right to be treated equally and fairly under the law. 


Human beings have a right to vote at the age of 18.

Reproductive Rights

Human beings have reproductive rights, which include the right to access safe and secure abortions.


Human beings have the right to marry a consenting partner of their choice. 

All Other Rights Reserved

The 9th Amendment in the Bill of Rights is often the most overlooked. Any rights not granted to the United States Government by the U.S. Constitution are reserved to the people themselves. You may hear some people say, “I don’t see a right to (fill in the blank) in the Constitution”. That’s because all rights that are not in the U.S. Constitution are already their own, and the government doesn’t have the right to take them away (even if they try). “The amendment was introduced during the drafting of the Bill of Rights when some of the American Founders became concerned that future generations might argue that, because a certain right was not listed in the Bill of Rights, it did not exist.”

Other Constitutional and Court-Affirmed Rights

Other U.S. Supreme Court rulings such as Brown vs. the Board of Education and Romer vs. Evans are highly recommended for research.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United Nations is a global body fully formed after the second World War in hopes of permanently preventing future global wars among nations. Each country has the ability to sign on to or formally agree to international treaties developed by the United Nations. The global body has written down a wide variety of human rights that they believe should be afforded to all human beings. Many human rights advocates, you may be called upon to advocate for international human rights here at home. You can learn more about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights here.

Basic Human Needs

Generally speaking, human beings are made of three (3) basic parts, including the body, mind and soul. The body is our physical self. It’s made up of molecules, bones, muscles, organs, tissues and other matter all operating together so that we can experience life on Earth. Our mind is our cognitive or thinking self. It allows us to process the experiences we have, and guides our thoughts, actions and behaviors. Our soul, or emotional self, is our ability to feel and sense the world around us. It is our energetic connection to all other human beings, and all other living beings in the universe.

In addition to upholding and defending human rights, human rights advocates are often called to ensure all people have access to their basic human needs. These needs are critical to ensure all parts of us – our body, mind and soul – can fully thrive. 

When our basic human needs are not met, human beings can stagnate in growth, decline in physical, mental, and emotional health and even die. In addition, when our basic needs are not being met, our survival instincts are more likely to kick-in, meaning that we may begin to operate out of desperation and need, rather than with consideration for our fellow human beings. Importantly, when human beings aren’t getting their basic needs met, they may begin to act out in ways that are unhealthy to themselves and others, up to and including resorting to criminal behavior.

Human rights advocates have a vested interest in ensuring that all people are guaranteed access to basic human needs in order to reach their own unique highest and fullest potential, as well as to reduce instances of people oppressing themselves and others. 

The following information is derived from Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, as well as the Whole Person Centered Optimal Health and Wellness Model developed by the I Am Well Foundation. However, the information here has been modernized with the latest knowledge in human development and for this learning format. Here, basic human needs are broken down into just two main categories: Survival Needs and Sense of Self, Environmental and Relational Needs. 

Survival Needs

Human beings each have basic survival needs, which are those that are essential to being alive. Without these needs being met, human beings can begin to enter survival mode within a matter of days, and can even die. These include: 

  • A sense of hope and opportunity.
  • Clean, breathable air.
  • Stable, secure housing that includes basic protection from the environment and other dangers, and that includes appropriate heating, air conditioning, food preparation and storage (like a refrigerator, freezer and stove), restroom facilities for going to the bathroom and bathing, and running water; Safe, secure and hygienic facilities to eliminate waste, including appropriate supplies such as toilet paper, soap, tampons, etc.
  • Clean, drinkable water.
  • Healthy and adequate food and nutrition.
  • The right amount of sleep in a stable, safe, comfortable condition that allows for physical rejuvenation and mental and emotional processing.
  • Stimulating physical, mental and emotional activity (such as running, playing sports, reading, writing poetry or working on hobbies).
  • Medical and mental health treatment and prevention services.

A Sense of Self, Environmental and Relational Needs

While survival needs are necessary for human beings to be alive, basic needs related to sense of self, environment and relationship to others allows human beings to fully develop who they are as a person, and to reach their own unique highest and fullest potential. While immediate death is not necessarily likely, absence of these needs being met also lead to physical, mental and emotional trauma, including invoking human survival mode responses, self-harm, harming others and potentially criminal behavior. These needs include, but are not limited to: 

  • A sense of physical, emotional, spiritual, mental and financial safety and security.
  • A sense of justice and fairness in the rules and systems in which they engage.
  • A set of personal boundaries or guiding principles that allow human beings to explore the world without causing harm to themselves or others.
  • Understanding and exploring one’s own body, mind and spiritual and emotional self to determine their own abilities and capacities, as well as their own beliefs, cultural traditions, and things that they enjoy. 
  • Gratification and entertainment. Human beings are meant to experience joy and happiness. 
  • The ability to stand up for and defend themselves in ways that cause no harm, or the least amount of physical, mental or emotional harm, to others.
  • Access to new and complete information, opportunities, education and experiences.
  • Access to transportation and mobility options (including wheelchairs, bicycles and sidewalks) that allow human beings to connect with resources, opportunities, communities and activities both far and near.
  • The ability to contribute their own experiences, knowledge, skills and talents to the community-at-large in ways that are meaningful to themselves, such as through work, school, volunteering, raising a family, playing a sport, or participating in an online chat forum. 
  • The ability to give and receive consenting affection (positive, non-sexual touch) to themselves and others, such as through hugs, pats on the back, holding hands, or even petting or holding an animal like a dog or cat. 
  • The ability to provide self-affirmation through positive self-talk and encouragement, receive positive affirmation from others, and to provide positive affirmation to others. 
  • The opportunity to connect and engage, and form relationships with others, and to feel a part of a community larger than themselves. 

Ensuring Accessibility and Inclusion – Preventing Marginalization

Human rights advocates are also committed to ensuring the concepts, technologies, policies, systems and laws they develop and support do not further marginalize or exclude an individual or group.

Though we all have the same universal rights and basic needs, human beings come in all shapes and sizes. We have a range of skin colors and hair types, varying heights and weights, ranges of immune system responses and sexual and digestives organs, and many other universal traits we share in common, but that are individually unique. We have different gender expressions and sexual orientations, religious and spiritual beliefs, physical, cognitive and emotional abilities, and different languages and cultural traditions – But the important thing is that we each have them. 

Human rights advocates always work to ensure concepts, technologies, policies, systems and laws are accessible to, inclusive of, and reflective of the diversity of all human beings. Using a spectrum or continuum-based lens that recognizes the universal characteristics we all have in common, as well as the uniqueness of each of us as individuals, can help us achieve these goals. A spectrum-based view of humanity helps us consider the wide range of human variations by first considering the things we all have in common, and then recognizing the range of human expressions and experiences associated. 

Does our dress code (if we think we need to have one) ensure “professional dress” is inclusive of the range of culturally diverse formal wear and styling? 

Does the language we use on our forms recognize the diverse range of family make-ups, including same-gender households, single parent households, grandparents raising children, etc.? 

Does our building or meeting space meet the needs of the broad range of physical and mobility capacities, including people who use mobility devices or people of all eyesight ranges?

Do our policies and procedures account for the wide range of emotional and mental capacities, and recognize that strict rules and detail-oriented paperwork limits accessibility? 

Spectrum Based View Outline

Dismantling “Othering”

Another key component of human rights advocacy is an intentional effort to dismantle “othering”. Human rights advocates recognize most people want to be seen as a human being. As human beings, we generally want people to be nice to us, care about our feelings, and value our experiences, input and contributions. But in many places throughout the world, including the United States, varying approaches to recognizing human diversity have resulted in exclusion, discrimination, de-humanization, and even slavery and murder. In the United States a “binary lens” of humanity with one side recognized as the “normal” or “default”, and the other side recognized as “the other” was widely utilized for many years.

Here are some examples  – White and People of Color; Men and Women; Straight and Gay; Abled and Disabled.

This lens was often codified in law, even though it went against our basic human rights and national values of freedom and equality. Specifically, laws and policies favored those on the left of the equation (White, Men, Straight, Abled) while excluding those on the right. This doesn’t mean all people on the left of the equation used this lens themselves. Still, the impacts of this lens continue to be felt and experienced by many people on all sides of the equation today. 

Prolonged institutionalization of categorizing human beings in non-universal lenses can lead to several challenges, including pressure for people to identify themselves and label all others with pre-defined categories, assumptions and social expectations. Over time, we can see increase in people feeling excluded or isolated, instances of permanent self-othering, and increases in othering of all human beings, including de-humanization, discrimination, human rights violations and extreme external and internalized oppression. 

The spectrum-based view of humanity encourages human rights advocates to use inquisitive processes and more precise language, rather than assuming things about people based on categories they may or may not choose to adopt themselves. While each person can certainly label themselves and identify as part of a community or pre-defined category, HRAs refrain from making assumptions about people based on their appearances, affiliations, places of birth or cultural traditions, abilities and expressions (among others).

By using the spectrum-view of human beings, HRAs can dismantle the concept of “default” categories altogether, and recognize that all variations of human beings are natural and normal. In doing so, human rights advocates dismantle the practice of “othering”, and instead dedicate themselves to truly learning about and valuing the unique experiences, ideas and contributions of each person.

Human Centered Checklist

For many HRAs, recognizing human rights violations, restrictions to basic needs and barriers to accessibility and inclusion are likely to become second nature. However, even long-time human rights advocates can benefit from a simple checklist that allows for quick analysis and review. This tool is designed to provide human rights advocates with an easy way to review a concept, technology, policy, system or law for signs of human rights violations. 

Human Centered Checklist


The following questions are designed for human rights advocates to check their baseline knowledge and prepare for their human rights advocacy journey. Knowing one’s passions and areas where more learning or research is needed can also help human rights advocates become more effective in their roles. You can answer these questions in your head, say them out loud, or type them in. If desired, you can also print your answers, and/or enter your email address to have them sent to you for future reference.