What Are Human Rights and Why Do They Matter?

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948 and sets out 30 rights that belong to all people. Seven decades on, the UDHR continues to be the basis of all international human rights law. However, there is still debate about what exactly human rights are and why they matter.

Some argue that human rights exist independently of their legal enactment, that they are innate or inalienable. Others point to the fact that human rights are reflected in all the world’s major religions and that most nations have signed and ratified many of the human rights treaties and conventions. In addition, there is a growing awareness that certain groups of people, such as women, minorities, the poor, the elderly and the incarcerated, are subject to systematic discrimination, abuse or neglect that is not justified by legitimate government interests. This has led to the widespread acceptance of the notion that some groups of people have special rights that require special protection.

The origins of human rights can be traced back to twin observations. The first was the recognition that human beings everywhere need a wide range of values or capabilities to live their lives to the fullest and the second was the realization that these requirements are often frustrated by social as well as natural forces, resulting in exploitation, oppression, persecution and deprivation.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, there was a renewed global concern about these issues. The Holocaust, and other examples of the systematic denial of humanity to groups such as Jews, communists or Slavs, shocked much of the world and gave rise to the human rights movement.

A number of philosophers have tried to explain the nature and significance of human rights. Rawls (1999) proposes a ‘political conception of human rights’, which is the idea that we can understand human rights by considering how they function in some specific political sphere. For Rawls this sphere is international politics and the law and practice that surrounds it.

Other philosophers have taken a more theoretical approach to the issue of human rights. For example, Gewirth (2011) argues that it is possible to derive a list of human rights from a few hard-to-dispute facts and a principle of consistency. He believes that we can do this because all countries have a similar set of political institutions – courts, legislatures, executives, militaries, police, prisons and public schools – and these have characteristic problems and abuses.

There is a continuing challenge to decide which norms count as human rights and to expand the lists. Many political movements would like to have their main concerns categorized as human rights so that they can get greater visibility and support at the international level. For example, feminists argue that standard lists of human rights fail to take adequately into account the different forms of violence against women. They also point out that most violations of women’s human rights are not committed by police or other government agents but by husbands, boyfriends or relatives.