The Role of Human Rights in International and National Politics

posted in: News | 0

Human rights emerged from the ashes of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust to address a new challenge: how can human beings live together peacefully and free from oppression, intolerance, discrimination and slavery? The answer was to create a common set of standards by which people could identify their basic rights and obligations, and by which governments could be held accountable for failing to protect them. The result was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR has inspired more than seventy human rights treaties that are now in force at international and regional levels.

The UDHR lists thirty-four human rights and freedoms that every person has the right to enjoy. Each of these rights is a fundamental element of the dignity of a human being. They are inalienable – they can never be given away or taken from any person – and are interdependent and interrelated, so that denial of one right inevitably leads to the violation of others. They are universal – they apply to all persons throughout the world regardless of their race, gender, religion or cultural background, and can be enforced by international treaties that guarantee due process and the rule of law.

While the UDHR’s logical structure is straightforward enough, its actual content is much more complicated. There is much debate over which norms should be considered human rights, and the list of human rights has arguably expanded and contracted over time, as new issues arise. For example, the UDHR does not address sexual harassment or the use of torture as a tool of warfare; these issues are now commonly understood to be human rights violations. Moreover, some political movements would like to see their main concerns categorized as human rights. This is problematic, however, because not every issue of social justice or wise governance constitutes a human right and it is extremely difficult to determine which norms should be counted as such.

Rather than seeking to ground human rights in some sort of independently existing moral reality, some theorists, particularly those who are philosophically inclined, prefer to view them as a highly useful political practice. This approach, which John Rawls outlined in his 1999 book The Law of Peoples, looks at the main roles that human rights play at international and national level.

Griffin argues that, as such, they provide a justification for their existence in the way that they help to give meaning and coherence to our lives, allowing us to make sense of the world around us. In his view, they also reflect and embody the normative values of the global community and serve to bind individuals into a common society.

Griffin identifies practicalities as the second ground on which human rights are justified, and describes them as the “second-best option for giving human rights unity, coherence and limits.” These practicalities include avoiding too many complicated bends in the line between rights and wrongdoing, enlarging the range of human rights slightly to allow safety margins, consulting facts about human nature and social interaction, and balancing the protection of normative agency with the protection of individual autonomy, freedom, and minimal well-being.