Despite a considerable lack of consensus, a number of widely accepted postulates may be seen to assist the task of defining human rights. Five in particular stand out, although not even these are without controversy.
First, regardless of their ultimate origin or justification, human rights are understood to represent both individual and group demands for the shaping and sharing of power, wealth, enlightenment, and other cherished values in community process, most fundamentally the value of respect and its constituent elements of reciprocal tolerance and mutual forbearance in the pursuit of all other values. Consequently, they imply claims against persons and institutions who impede realization and standards for judging the legitimacy of laws and traditions. At bottom, human rights qualify state sovereignty and power, sometimes expanding the latter even while circumscribing the former (as in the case of certain economic and social rights, for example--see below).
Second, human rights are commonly assumed to refer, in some vague sense, to "fundamental" as distinct from "nonessential" claims or "goods." In fact, some theorists go so far as to limit human rights to a single core right or two--for example, the right to life or the right to equal freedom of opportunity. The tendency is to emphasize "basic needs" and to rule out "mere wants."
Third, reflecting varying environmental circumstances, differing worldviews, and inescapable interdependencies within and between value processes, human rights refer to a wide continuum of value claims ranging from the most justiciable to the most aspirational. Human rights partake of both the legal and the moral orders, sometimes indistinguishably. They are expressive of both the "is" and the "ought" in human affairs.
Fourth, most assertions of human rights are qualified by the limitation that the rights of any particular individual or group in any particular instance are restricted as much as is necessary to secure the comparable rights of others and the aggregate common interest. Given this interdependency, human rights are sometimes designated prima facie rights, so that ordinarily it makes little or no sense to think or talk of them in absolutist terms.
Finally, if a right is determined to be a human right it is understood to be quintessentially general or universal in character, in some sense equally possessed by all human beings everywhere, including in certain instances even the unborn. In stark contrast to "the divine right of kings" and other such conceptions of privilege, human rights extend in theory to every person on earth without discriminations irrelevant to merit, simply for being human.
In several critical respects, however, all of these postulates raise more questions than they answer. Granted that human rights qualify state power, do they qualify also private power? If so, when and how? What does it mean to say that a right is fundamental? Does it entail some bare minimum only, or, more plausibly, does it admit to something greater? If the latter, how much greater and subject to what standards of importance or urgency? What is the value of embracing non-justiciable rights as part of the jurisprudence of human rights? Does it harbor more than rhetorical significance? If so, how? When and according to what criteria does the right of one person or group of people give way to the right of another? What happens when individual and group rights collide? How are universal human rights determined? Are they a function of culture or ideology, or are they determined according to some transnational consensus of merit or value? If the latter, a regional consensus? A global consensus? In other words, though accurate, the five foregoing postulates are fraught with questions about the content and legitimate scope of human rights and about the priorities, if any, that exist among them. Like the issue of the origin and justification of human rights, all five are controversial.