Philosophy of Human Rights

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Human rights are fundamental freedoms and dignity that every person is entitled to. They include the right to food, shelter, education, health and freedom from torture or inhuman and degrading treatment. The fulfilment of these rights is essential to a person’s human dignity. Human rights are universal and inalienable, indivisible and interrelated, and must be respected by all countries. They are the rights of all persons, irrespective of their status in society, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, political or other opinion, age, social or cultural origin, disability, property or birth. These are the core principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, in response to the barbarities committed during World War II.

The Declaration proclaimed that the human rights of all people are universal and indivisible, and must be respected by all states. It established the foundation for a world based on freedom, justice and peace.

Since the Universal Declaration was first enshrined in international law, many philosophies and theories have been put forward to try and explain how these fundamental rights became a central part of the world’s legal system. The study of these philosophies and theories is called the philosophy of human rights.

Some philosophers believe that human rights are an expression of natural moral law, stemming from a variety of different philosophical or religious traditions. This idea provides a foundation for the philosophical justification of human rights, and it is a major source of the debate over them. The strong claims often made on behalf of human rights (such as their universality and inalienability) have provoked skepticism and countering philosophical defenses.

Other philosophers, such as John Rawls, argue that human rights can be best understood in terms of their role within some political sphere. These roles could, for example, be international relations or national politics. Rawls’ political conception of human rights has been influential in recent philosophical and legal discussion, and it provides a way of understanding the content, normativity and roles of human rights.

Many human rights defenders, who often work at great personal risk, have a moral and ethical commitment to the universality of human rights. The improvement of one right facilitates the advancement of the others and the deprivation of one adversely affects the fulfilment of the others. They must therefore strive for the progressive realisation of all human rights.

The most practical way of establishing the existence of human rights is through their legal enactment in both domestic and international law. This approach is also the most effective way of guaranteeing their implementation, because it imposes a legal obligation on governments to respect and protect human rights. For this reason, some human rights advocates have sought to establish the existence of human rights in other ways. One popular alternative to legal enactment is by arguing that they are inherent in human nature, a claim that is closely linked to the doctrines of ancient Greece and Rome.