A human rights framework provides a way for political leaders and governments to develop and sustain democratic institutions. It also serves as a counterweight against the natural human tendency toward tyranny. Wherever political leaders or governments cut away at the individual strands that hold this web of rights and obligations together, it undermines the overall democratic edifice and allows human rights abuses to escalate.
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, it proclaimed a range of fundamental rights to which all people are entitled, regardless of their country or culture. These rights are not just morally or legally important; they are essential to human dignity. They are the foundation upon which international law and human rights treaties have been built.
There are many ways to interpret human rights, but there is a consensus that the fundamental concept is that all people have certain intrinsic worth or value as humans and are worthy of respect. Human rights also protect people from the actions of others and provide a set of guiding principles against which to judge the conduct of individuals, communities, countries, and multinational corporations.
Most importantly, the idea of human rights has broad popular support. This broad popular support is vital for human rights to be realized and sustained. Ideally, it should appeal to people with a wide range of political views – from the center-left to the center-right. If the human rights framework is dominated by a strongly egalitarian political program, it will not appeal to enough people and may lose support.
The concept of human rights emerged from two observations: the observation that every person requires diverse values or capabilities for well-being, and the observation that these requirements are often painfully frustrated by social and natural forces, resulting in exploitation, oppression, or persecution. These twin observations gave rise to both the human rights movement and the national and international legal processes that are associated with it.
The first question about human rights is what makes them legitimate. The answer to this question has varied over time. The majority view today is that they are grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and derived from an empirical analysis of human nature, society, and politics. In the end, they are a collection of hard-to-dispute facts and a set of practical guidelines for how to act on those facts.
Griffin explains that “practicalities” shape human rights by prescribing “a clear definition of rights that avoids too many complicated bends,” enlarging them a bit to provide safety margins, and consulting the facts about human nature and the human condition (see “Fundamental Groundings” in this issue).
The next question is how to ensure that human rights are respected and protected. One way is to promote and implement human rights treaties, which have the force of law when ratified by states. Another is to encourage the development of local human rights advocacy and defenders. Finally, there is a need for more consistent, principled, and ambitious action by all states to promote and protect human rights.