Understanding the Concept of Human Rights

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Human rights are a set of fundamental principles that define everyone’s basic dignity. They are universal, inalienable, indivisible and interdependent; they include political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. Those who violate them should be held accountable for their actions.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 to provide a common understanding of what everyone is entitled to under the law. It outlines the core tenets of human rights and the responsibility of states to protect their citizens from abuse, oppression, injustice and genocide.

It was the first time that governments had agreed on a common list of core human rights. It is still the most widely recognized international treaty addressing the core concepts of human rights. The Declaration also established a unique procedure, the Universal Periodic Review, which involves each country being reviewed by other UN member states every four years.

While the Declaration and other international treaties have helped to make major advances in the protection of human rights, it is important to recognize that there are continuing challenges. In many countries, the human rights situation continues to deteriorate. Millions are affected by poverty, conflict and natural disasters that impede their right to adequate food, housing, health care and education. People in some countries are subjected to indiscriminate attacks, the destruction of vital infrastructure and forced displacement by militias, armed groups and security forces. Governments fail to respond adequately to the needs of people fleeing from violence and persecution.

A key question for human rights scholars is how to explain the core idea of human rights. Advocates of a moral conception of human rights often argue against wholesale moral skepticism while maintaining that there are sound normative justifications for the content, normativity and role of human rights.

Some human rights philosophers, such as Alan Gewirth, have argued that human rights are grounded in the values of individual autonomy and agency. This view of human rights is problematic for several reasons. For one, it is difficult to show how a theory of human rights that is grounded in normative agency and autonomy can provide the kind of robustness and coherence that is needed for the effective protection of human rights.

A second problem with this approach is that it fails to account for the fact that human rights are not just something that we can ascribe to the divine or to any other metaphysical realm. They are also a product of contemporary social arrangements. As such, they are susceptible to all the same controversies about their content and legitimacy that we encounter with other social norms and principles. It is therefore important to find a form of justification that provides both a rationale for the existence of human rights and a way to link them with the other moral norms that are deemed essential to human flourishing. This is the challenge that faces all advocates of a political conception of human rights.