The three “I”s of human rights and why they matter

In the second edition of his book Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, Jack Donnelly describes human rights as universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated (Donnelly 27).  The universality of human rights is fairly straightforward: the foundation of human rights depends on the idea that “all human beings have certain basic rights simply because they are human” (Donnelly 27, 236). If all humans do not have human rights, than calling those rights “human rights” becomes a contradiction in terms.

The three “I”s, however, are a bit more complicated. How are human rights indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and why does it matter? Human rights are a package deal. This is important not only in theory, but also in practice. Let’s unpack  the terms:

Think of the line from the pledge of allegiance: “One nation, indivisible…” Human rights are indivisible. This means human rights cannot be divided from one another. You cannot separate one from another. They all come as one big group of standards for a life of dignity. For example, one cannot grant housing and health care to a person but withhold food; without food, the individual’s life will be substandard. This is a violation of the person’s human rights.

The interdependence of human rights means that the rights depend on one another. Let’s say one gives a person good health care and good food to eat, but no home in which to live. In this scenario, although the person has food and health care, it will be extremely difficult for them to lead the healthy life that human rights are supposed to offer. Where will the person store the food? If they are sick and need to rest in a warm, safe and dry place to heal, where will they go? Without a place to live, access to food and health care isn’t enough. This is why human rights are interdependent. This person’s rights to health and to food depend on their right to housing. Because human rights are interdependent, they are also interrelated. The relationships among human rights are mutual. You cannot have one without the other – effectively an all or nothing situation.

All or nothing? That certainly seems drastic. However, if we can separate out human rights, we can deny them. If we establish a false hierarchy by deciding what are the “most important” human rights, we create a pyramid of human rights – the things we “need most” forming the base, the things we would “like to have” in the middle, and the “extra stuff” on the top. With this setup, we can deny people access to the “middle” and “top” human rights because those rights are not “required.”

There are a few problems with this. First, the package deal is broken up. The rights are divided which interrupts their mutual dependence and relationship (a roof over your head without dinner on the table, for example). Second, this welcomes differing access to rights that are supposed to be universally granted to all humans. Inevitably, if there’s a false hierarchy established, the created lines will blur between what is “necessary,” what is additionally “preferred,” and what is “fluff.” Finally, this allows us to deny human rights. This means that we permit some people to live lives below the established standards of a life of dignity.

The three generations of human rights also play into all of this, but that’s another post for another day, so stay tuned!

Human rights aren’t simply about surviving; they’re about a life of dignity. The declarations, conventions and other documents on human rights aren’t simply supposed to be theory, but promises to put into practice. In addition to universality, the three “I”s matter because they ensure that all humans have access to all human rights.


Donnelly, Jack.  Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, Second Edition.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.  pp. 27, 236-237.

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