What Are Human Rights?
Human rights are moral rights that people are entitled to. They are inalienable and indivisible. They are interrelated: the realisation of one right facilitates the realization of others and the deprivation of one right adversely affects the realization of others.
Some philosophers have argued that human rights are modest standards that leave most legal matters open to democratic decision-making at the national and local level (see Joshua Cohen 2004 and Henry Shue 1996). This approach restrains rights inflation.
One of the most important principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in international law generally is that of universality. This is the notion that all human beings are equal in their dignity and worth and deserve to live free from discrimination on the basis of their status.
It is a common criticism that the concept of universality is Eurocentric and that the human rights system is an attempt to impose Western values on non-Western societies. However, this view is misleading as it fails to take into account the fact that many of the rights outlined in the UDHR were not specifically conceived or settled by European countries and that two-thirds of the states which endorsed the document came from outside of the West.
Another criticism concerns culture and the alleged incompatibility of human rights with traditional cultural practices. This is also false because many of the rights outlined in the UAHR are not prescriptive; they describe what society should be free from, rather than what it should do or how it should look.
The notion of inalienability relates to human rights because they cannot be revoked or denied by any other force. This contrasts with alienable rights which can be transferred to another party – for example, property passed down along the male line of a family.
Inalienability can help us make sense of the notion that rights are indivisible and interrelated. Those who advocate indivisibility argue that no human right can be fully realised without the simultaneous realisation of all other rights. They therefore argue that a lack of commitment to indivisibility fuels dangerous rights prioritisations by governments and undermines the integrity of the human rights system.
One of the UDHR’s central ideas was that human rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. This means that all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural – are intrinsically connected and can not be seen in isolation from each other. It also means that the enjoyment of one right depends on the enjoyment of many others. Furthermore, the advancement of any one right paves the way for progress in other areas of human rights and the deprivation of any one right has a direct adverse impact on the enjoyment of other rights.
However, this does not mean that human rights can never be forfeited temporarily or permanently. For instance, people’s right to freedom of movement may be derogated from if they are convicted of serious crimes. Nevertheless, human rights are hard to lose. They are a fundamental part of our common humanity. This is why it is so important that all people and organisations work together towards the emancipation of human rights.
Views that explain human rights in terms of the practical political roles they play have had some prominent advocates in recent decades. Gewirth, for example, grounds human rights in the fact that the value of successful agency and autonomy requires regarding some basic moral norms as necessary goods: a prudent rational agent will assert prudential right claims to these. From these, he argues, one can derive a set of more determinate rights.
Rawls, a more narrowly focused thinker, develops a similar political conception of human rights. His key idea is that a society should be structured around three fundamental ideas: that all citizens are free and equal; that it is just to make cooperation work in a system of shared principles; and that a liberal state will guarantee for its citizens adequate all-purpose means for making a good life.
The point is that reasonable citizens in a society will accept these ideas as principles of mutually acceptable cooperation. It follows that the use of coercive power guided by these concepts will be legitimate.