The Concept of Human Rights

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human rights

Human rights are a group of principles and standards that describe the fundamental rights that people have as individuals regardless of their country, religion or culture. They are the basis for a number of international laws and treaties as well as national and local governments and institutions that protect and promote human rights. The concept of human rights has also served as the inspiration for a variety of political ideas and arguments.

The defining features of human rights are equality, inalienability, interrelatedness and universality. The first of these focuses on the idea that people have rights by virtue of their inherent dignity as individuals. This does not mean that the enjoyment of one right inherently entails the enjoyment of other rights; rather, it simply means that denying a person a specific right invariably has a negative impact on his or her enjoyment of all other rights.

Inalienability refers to the notion that people have a fundamental right not to be arbitrarily and unnecessarily restricted or denied any of their rights (for a critical assessment of this feature see Boylan 1999). The third focuses on the principle that human rights are universal. This does not mean that people have universal moral rights but rather that all people have certain fundamental social and political freedoms, the most important of which are the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Finally, interrelatedness relates to the fact that the enjoyment of human rights requires that all other rights be respected and protected at the same time. Thus the principle that all human rights are interdependent and indivisible is important. It does not matter whether or not a given right is on an official list of human rights; it matters only that the recognition, protection and fulfilment of each right is facilitated by the promotion and protection of all other rights (for a critical review of this feature see Beitz 2009).

The main philosophical differences regarding human rights can be found in different conceptions of the role of human rights in the world today. One approach comes from John Rawls in his book The Law of Peoples, where he offers a normative reconstruction of international relations and national politics. This approach places a great deal of emphasis on the role that human rights play in an individual’s interaction with other states, particularly in terms of their potential to trigger permissible intervention by other states. This conception is not without its critics but it has served as the inspiration for a wide range of national and international laws, treaties and institutions and a number of important ideas and arguments. Moreover, it has been the basis for a substantial body of academic literature in the area of human rights. Another important philosophical approach to human rights is that of Jeremy Waldron in his essay, “Human Rights”. Waldron distinguishes between a metaphysical and a legal view of human rights. He notes that arguing for rights on metaphysical grounds may provide them with a secure status in the eyes of many people but it is unlikely to be enough to ensure their realization. In contrast, he writes that the legal enactment of rights at the national and international levels can be far more effective for this purpose.