Do Human Rights Really Exist?

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Human rights are a set of principles that supposedly embody the morally rightful demands of individuals on each other and their governments. They are derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec 10, 1948 in the aftermath of World War II. The UDHR is one of the earliest times that people from diverse legal and cultural backgrounds came together to distill and assert general principles for peaceful living on this planet.

But do human rights really exist? Or are they simply the norms of a highly useful political practice that humans have constructed or evolved? To answer this question, it is helpful to distinguish between two ways of thinking about human rights.

The first way involves seeing human rights as grounded in some sort of independently existing moral reality. In this view, moral reasons are independent of human construction and can be used by anyone willing to commit to open-minded inquiry to establish the basis for demands that are morally valid. This approach has considerable appeal for some people.

However, many people find that the moral grounds that underlie the human rights movement are not persuasive to them or do not resonate with their own experiences. They may not be convinced that a particular moral claim is justified because they are not aware of the conditions under which it could be proved or because their own life experiences do not support its validity.

The second way of viewing human rights is to see them as the norms of a highly useful political tool that can be employed in a variety of ways to protect urgent human interests and advance important policy goals at both national and international levels. This is a more practical and empirical way of looking at human rights. It has considerable support among some people, including governments.

For example, it is common for governments to make human rights a central feature of their foreign policies in order to attract investments and promote good governance. Countries with high human rights standards also tend to have stronger economies. Human rights have been a central theme in some of the most popular international treaties in recent decades, including those on civil and political rights, social and economic rights, cultural and minority rights.

Nevertheless, some people are still skeptical of the value and importance of human rights. They are concerned that these demands threaten to undermine national sovereignty or lead to the imposition of external values and standards. In addition, they are concerned that the human rights movement is too focused on specific groups such as women, minorities or indigenous peoples.

Other people, however, believe that human rights have made a substantial difference in their lives. Whether or not they agree with human rights, most people want their governments to respect them and ensure that those rights are not violated. Human rights treaties set forth minimum standards that States must adhere to, and violations of these treaties can be subjected to legally sanctioned international scrutiny and enforcement. The UK’s Human Rights Act of 1998 makes it easier for people to bring cases in the UK courts and tribunals for breaches of these obligations. Previously, such challenges were generally brought before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.