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13 Human Rights That Still Aren’t Universal—But Should Be

We still have a ways to go when it comes to protecting basic human rights around the globe.

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The importance of human rights

The idea behind human rights is to ensure that all people receive protection against those who are more powerful, as well as guarantee that they have the means to access the resources and services they need to live. Here are 13 examples of human rights that aren’t universal, but should be.

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Freedom from gender discrimination

As far as we’d like to think we’ve come in terms of gender discrimination, we still have a long way to go, especially in terms of the rights outlined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), M. Joel Voss, PhD, assistant professor at The University of Toledo Department of Political Science and Public Administration, tells Reader’s Digest. But if even a country has ratified CEDAW, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they eschew gender discrimination. Take Saudi Arabia, for example: They have ratified CEDAW, but the country’s male guardianship system essentially takes away all agency for women to decide their own fates.

“Human rights are concerned with human dignity and there is arguably little dignity without the ability to choose one’s own fate,” Voss explains. “Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to do many of the things Western women take for granted including deciding on their marriage partners or when or where they would like to travel. Further, the guardianship system does not protect women from abuse within the home, which is particularly problematic since most abuse happens within homes—both in Saudi Arabia and in most other countries.” In fact, here are 16 ways women still aren’t equal to men.

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Freedom of speech

In China, government censors monitor phones, internet, email, and other forms of communication to ensure that unpopular views are suppressed, Heather Smith-Cannoy, PhD, associate professor of political science at Arizona State University and editor of Emerging Threats to Human Rights: Resources, Violence, and Deprivation of Citizenshiptells Reader’s Digest. While limitations on these rights apply widely to everyone in China, minority groups that the state targets, including Tibetans and Uyghurs, among others, are especially prone to imprisonment.

“The United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China maintains a Political Prisoner Database which has kept track of cases of political prisoners in China between 1981 and 2018. During those years, the Chinese government has arrested 9,116 political prisoners,” Smith-Cannoy says. “Those that do publicly speak out against the government can be subject to imprisonment or capital punishment.” Read more about why freedom of speech is our most important right.

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Freedom of assembly

China also does not guarantee the right of freedom of assembly for its citizens. “Not surprisingly, when people do gather and protest as they did in Tienanmen Square and are currently doing in Hong Kong, the Chinese response is harsh and brutal,” Smith-Cannoy explains. According to Freedom House, restrictions on freedom of assembly intensified in China in 2005, as party leaders grew suspicious of the role that non-governmental organizations, lawyers, and labor activists might play in stirring dissent in the run-up to the 17th National Party Congress in 2007 and the Olympic Games in 2008. Fortunately, many countries do permit their citizens to assemble, including the places which hosted these 12 protests that changed the world for workers everywhere.

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Right to education

Though kids may complain about having to get up for school in the morning, not all children even have the option to do so. For example, in Afghanistan, an estimated 3.7 million children are out of school; 60 percent of them are girls, according to UNICEF. Several factors contribute to these figures, including decades of conflict, regular natural disasters, a lack of transportation, and the fact that many girls, 7 percent before their 15th birthday, marry young.

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Right to own property

According to Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to own property. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen in practice. For example, in Uganda, a combination of factors—including colonial legacies, border disputes, and illegal evictions—means that not everyone is afforded the right to own property. This is especially true for women, who own between five and 26 percent of the registered land in the country and are routinely displaced from their own property.

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Right to marriage

Though we have made great strides towards marriage equality over the past decade, not everyone enjoys the right to be wed. For example, in Poland, same-sex marriage is still illegal and anti-gay attacks are not considered hate crimes, Time magazine reports.

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Freedom from slavery

Although slavery is technically illegal in all countries, it still very much still exists in various forms. One example of this is in Uzbekistan, where 3.97 percent of the population was found to be living in modern slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index 2016 report. Much of this is in the form of forced labor picking cotton. Although the work is presented as being “voluntary,” that’s not the case for the one million citizens forced into harvesting cotton every year for weeks on end. Need some peaceful inspiration? Here are 23 moving quotes about peace from world leaders.

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Right to personal security

Although everyone should be entitled to the right to personal security, that’s not the case in all parts of the world. For example, there has been very little action taken by the Russian government to stop the epidemic of domestic violence endangering the women of the country, Human Rights Watch reports. In July, the European Court of Human Rights issued its first ruling on a domestic violence case in Russia, concluding that the government’s inaction regarding domestic violence is the result of a systemic, ongoing failure to properly address the issue and grant the citizens their right to personal security. These are 16 unavoidable facts about domestic violence you need to know.

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Freedom from discrimination

As human beings, we should also enjoy freedom from discrimination, but this is something most countries struggle with at least to some extent. In Iran, for example, people with disabilities routinely face discrimination and abuse, Human Rights Watch reports. In addition to everyday barriers—like using public transit and obtaining adequate healthcare—they also regularly face stigmas from government employees and medical professionals.

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Freedom of religion

Freedom of religion is also not respected in China. According to Smith-Cannoy, for the approximately 11 million Uyghurs living in China, who are predominantly Muslim, the right to practice their religion has been significantly repressed. “Today, the Chinese government is running Uyghur internment camps in the western Xinjiang region,” she says. “Men, women, and children are confined in these camps and subjected to squalid conditions.”

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Freedom to control your health

The World Health Organization’s Constitution (1946) envisages “…the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being.” Unfortunately, this is not a universal human right, and the United States is an example of this. Affordable, adequate health care is not accessible to everyone in the U.S. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 27.5 million people—or 8.5 percent of the population—went without health insurance in 2018, an increase of 1.9 million uninsured people, or 0.5 percentage point, from 2017. Maybe we can take a lesson from Switzerland, which has the best health care system in the world.

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Freedom from torture

Though the UN Convention Against Torture was enacted in 1984, many countries still engage in practices considered torture. For example, the nongovernmental organization Freedom from Torture reports that Sri Lanka has consistently been the country where most of their clients come from. Part of the problem involves the ongoing torture of Tamils that is allegedly done in a security context. The group’s 2019 report “Too little change: ongoing torture in security operations in Sri Lanka” details how people were tortured by state officials for “security purposes,” despite not being charged with a crime under anti-terror or any other laws.

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Right to participate in free elections

The right to vote is something many people take for granted. The citizens of Libya, for example, are not able to participate in free elections. “Libya today couldn’t be further away from respect for the rule of law and human rights, let alone from acceptable conditions for free elections,” Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement ahead of a recent election. “The authorities need to be able to guarantee freedom of assembly, association, and speech to anyone participating in the elections.” And the U.S. hasn’t been a model of voting rights either; here are 15 countries where women had the right to vote before they did in the U.S.

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth is an award-winning journalist and bioethicist from New York City covering knowledge, culture, politics, history and lesser-known facts about holidays and traditions. In addition to Reader's Digest, she writes for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Architectural Digest, the Atlantic, Bloomberg CityLab, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Teen Vogue, the History Channel, Real Simple and Lifehacker.