The vulture is waiting for the little girl to die. She collapsed on her way to a food distribution center. This is not a photo from a movie scene; it depicts the reality of human suffering. When the picture was first published in the New York Times, it received tremendous attention. The South African photographer Kevin Carter, who took it during the war in Sudan in 1993, received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for it. Several months later, he committed suicide, overwhelmed by the human horror he had witnessed. Atrocities and disregard for human life seem to be an integral part of our history and politics.

What creates the dignity of a human being? Since World War II, we consider universal human rights as a foundation for humanity, but what are these human rights? They are not laws – they are a set of demands for the treatment of human beings. These demands have gradually been codified into laws in different societies and through a system of international treaties. As rights, they are unique, and this article will explore the characteristics of Human rights. 

The current chapter of the story begins with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; created in 1948 as a response to the horrors of the Holocaust. I have written an article elsewhere on the larger history of human rights. The Universal Declaration is a founding document of the United Nations, and it initiates a discourse that cuts across economic, racial, ethnic, religious, or gender-based divisions in societies. It also transcends the lines of nation-states, because it firmly starts with the concept of one human race, where every member deserves to be treated with respect. Because this discourse ignores the particularities of economic or political systems, or the complicated historical divisions that exist in some societies, it may seem idealistic, but this is also its strength. By ignoring particular social and cultural conditions, and simply defining a set of minimal standards for a human life lived in dignity and respect, the human rights discourse anticipates a future that becomes a model for the present. It sets norms and treats them as politically attainable, not just as lofty ideals. This approach has worked, not so much through the initiation of strong political actions, but through the erosive force of arguments against deeply ingrained unjust social conditions that exist everywhere. Human rights advocacy has become a fixture in political controversies. As a set of demands for the treatment of individual human beings it generates pressure on existing regimes and their policies, and it instills a sense of expectation in people all over the world. These expectations create a political force-field that no government can ignore on the long run. It is one of the main functions of international human rights to regulate the behavior of governments.

The following list describes the characteristics of human rights that makes them such powerful tools in the political discourse:

  1. Human rights are moral claims, and therefore they are grounded in morality, not just law. They have a very high priority compared to other moral or non-moral claims, such as claims based on honor, disgust, utility etc.
  2. They require mandatory (as opposed to discretionary) compliance and are therefore more than mere aspirations – they are necessary for the protection and realization of certain fundamental, basic and universal human values and interests.
  3. They are instrumental principles in the sense that we don’t want them for their own sake; they are means for the creation of better life quality and not just goals in themselves.
  4. they are universal: all human beings have certain rights, for no other reason than their humanity and the values attached to humanity; this means that human rights precede and trump considerations of national sovereignty and that national sovereignty therefore does not provide a means to escape human rights obligations.
  5. They are pre-political: they are a moral order that has a legitimacy and existence preceding contingent social, legal, political, cultural and historical conditions and that can be used to assess and question those conditions
  6. They are independent from legal/social/cultural/religious recognition: human beings have human rights even if the laws and customs of their country/group do not recognize or perhaps even violate these rights – although people’s rights are obviously much more secure when they are translated into law and culture.
  7. They are unconditional: people have rights without conditions; respect for rights is not conditional upon fulfillment of duties, status, legal recognition of rights or persons etc. 
  8. They are inalienable: since rights are owned by human beings because of their humanity, these rights aren’t given and hence can’t be taken away; people still have rights when those rights are violated
  9. They are not forfeitable: people can’t give their rights away for the same reason that these rights can’t be taken away; however, people can decide that they don’t want their rights enforced.
  10. They are equal rights: rights are equal in two meanings of the word; they are equal between people (because all people are equally human) and they are equal to other human rights (there are no “basic” and “less urgent/important” human rights)
  11. They are interdependent: different rights need each other, violations of one right most likely lead to violations of other rights (which is one reason why there can’t be a core of “basic” rights).
  12. They are limited: rights have to be balanced against each other because respect for one right can imply a violation of another right; balancing means imposing limitations on some rights for the benefit of other rights (or of the rights of others); the fact that there are no basic rights makes this balancing more difficult but not impossible. Conflicting rights then have to be balanced by taking into account the nature of the underlying values, or the way in which the two conflicting rights realize the values they are supposed to uphold. 
  13. They are not politically neutral: not all forms of government can equally respect human rights; there’s a close link between human rights and democracy.
  14. They are multidimensional: human rights are not just a matter between citizens and the state; they are addressed at everyone and impose duties on everyone. Corporations and other organizations also have to be mindful of their operations’  human rights implications. This means that human rights also function in a trans-national and trans-generational dimension.
  15. They are simultaneously negative (free from x) and positive (free to do x): they always and everywhere require both self-restraint and tolerance as well as active intervention,  according to the circumstances.

The human rights debate is a discourse where politics, ethics, religion, history, and philosophy intersect. Attacks against the universality of the claims are themselves attempts to undercut these rights; the full realization of these ideas across all current political conflicts still remains an elusive goal. 

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