The Political Concept of Human Rights

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Human rights are the universal principles that everyone on the planet is entitled to enjoy in a world of genuine peace and justice. The most comprehensive statement of them was approved, almost unanimously, by the nations of the world in 1948: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The UDHR opened by stating that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It then proceeded to list 30 articles summarizing the things to which all persons are entitled, simply because they are human beings. The UDHR is the most widely translated human rights document in history. It is the basis for all UN treaties, and is the core of human rights discourse around the globe.

It is not, however, the only way of thinking about human rights. A different approach is to view human rights as political concepts rather than a kind of independently existing moral reality. This view sees human rights as serving various political functions, including setting international standards for evaluating the treatment of people by their governments and specifying when it is permissible to use economic sanctions or military force to protect urgent human needs.

For some, such political concepts of human rights are a more pragmatically helpful approach than a belief that they embody the most fundamental moral norms of humanity. It leaves legal and policy matters open for democratic decision-making at the national and local levels, and avoids excessively lofty aspirations or demanding ideals. Henry Shue, for example, has argued that human rights concern the “lower limits on tolerable human conduct” (Shue 1996).

The practicality of a political concept of human rights is further strengthened by the fact that it does not require any religion or creed to support it. Theological beliefs can, of course, provide support for human rights, but this is not required for their enshrinement as international law. This is a crucial consideration in a world of very diverse religious beliefs, where billions do not believe in the sort of god that would prescribe or sanction human rights. It is much harder to persuade them to change their theological views than it is to get them to ratify the legal enactment of human rights at both the national and international levels.

Whether human rights are understood as politically practical or as morally fundamental, they remain the key to a world in which all individuals can live with dignity and freedom. It is important to recognize the challenges that lie ahead and to continue to work together, at the regional and global level, towards their universal application. In this context, reprisals against human rights defenders must be addressed, including the abuse of accreditation and security procedures to prevent civil society organizations from interacting with the UN system, and the labeling of people as terrorists or criminals in their attempts to persuade their governments to address their grievances. These practices contribute to the lack of trust in the international system and undermine human rights progress.