The Concept of Human Rights

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human rights

As a concept, human rights have been around for thousands of years. The idea is that every human being has certain inalienable rights, which are fundamental to their dignity as humans. It is these rights that are defended and promoted by activists, NGOs and governments worldwide.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, human rights began to take on a more formalized role in international law, with governments signing treaties to uphold them. These human rights agreements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are based on a commitment to protect the basic liberties of individuals. The key principle is that no one should be deprived of their basic human rights by their government, which has a moral and legal obligation to do so.

While the concept of human rights has been around for a long time, the specifics of what counts as a right are not always clear. As such, there are still many issues on which people disagree. Often, these disagreements reflect a tension between two competing claims about what is important to the human condition: the claim that all humans are created equal and therefore have some intrinsic value; and the claim that rights can only be enforceable through the political process (known as the “full belly thesis”).

Historically, philosophers have attempted to bridge this gap by asserting that both of these ideas are true, but that we need to balance them. The best way to do this, according to some, is to limit human rights to a set of essential standards that are universally applicable and which provide an adequate basis for enforceable protections. This list of standards includes things like freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the right to a life worth living.

However, if we want human rights to be viable and effective in practice, they must be more than mere abstractions, and need to be grounded in real world values and needs. This is what John Rawls tried to do in his book, The Law of Peoples (1999). Rawls argued that we can understand and justify the concept of human rights by looking at the ways they function within some sphere of politics.

These include the sphere of international relations and, more specifically, national politics. Rawls also argued that the main roles of human rights are to protect and promote fundamental standards, and they must be universal in application.

Moreover, human rights must be anchored in some moral and natural order, because without them we would not have the justification to sign up to them. For example, a person’s right to life is rooted in natural law and the belief that they are born free and equal in dignity. This is why these rights are universal.

Other scholars, like Cranston, have argued that human rights should be limited to only very important goods and protections, which are then justified by a series of tests (known as the “Cranston test”) to ensure that they are universally applicable.