The concept of “human rights” is relatively new. It was first fully articulated on a major scale in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was developed by the United Nations as a response to the atrocities of World War II.
“Human rights” includes ideas with a long history, however. In the West, primary among the related concepts is “natural rights”—which have been explained as rights with which human beings are born (innate) and, for people who are religious, God-given; as such, they are inalienable and cannot be taken away by governments. In the United States, such inalienable rights were built into the nation’s founding. Moreover, they are not limited to citizens but extend to everyone living in the country. More recently, “civil rights” have been elaborated as having many of the same premises as “human rights.”
The most fundamental US legal document guaranteeing natural, civil, and human rights is the Constitution. Several amendments are particularly applicable, including the First Amendment, which includes freedom of religion and speech; the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees protection from unreasonable search and seizure; and Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery (which was enforced by the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and prohibiting states from passing unconstitutional laws). The Tenth Amendment is also relevant, as it guarantees certain powers to the states; these include the passage of laws.
Because US states have the power to enact laws, many specific protections of human rights fall under the purview of state laws. Although clashes between state and federal understandings of rights have occurred throughout US history, they became especially intense during the 1950s and 1960s as the Civil Rights movement heated up, resulting in numerous landmark cases reaffirming national policy.
International human rights laws are generally established through treaties to which States (countries) become parties.