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Theorising Human Rights

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Autor:  anton  24 December 2010
Tags:  Theorising,  Rights
Words: 765   |   Pages: 4
Views: 357

Theorising human rights

What are human rights?

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by the member states of the United Nations. For many, that document was the single most important of the twentieth century, for it lays down certain claims regarding the rights of all peoples around the world, and formalizes them within the framework of international law, albeit in a suggestive, rather than legally binding, manner. Over 50 years on, however, we are still faced with a world which does not fully recognize the claims made in the Declaration. Human rights abuses continue in nation-states across the globe. Western democracies preach the observance of human rights regulations to non-Western nations whilst blatantly ignoring them at home, The world of international relations is still as chaotic and competitive as it was before 1948; only it has become more hypocritical.

Why this document was signed, what its claims are, and why it has not succeeded in eradicating human rights abuses around the world, are the subjects of the next chapter. Before we discuss any of these, though, we need to understand exactly what we mean when we talk about human rights, a term that is used frequently and understood rarely. Indeed, very often when we hear human rights discussed, we find that what is actually being discussed is citizenship rights, or civil liberties. To avoid confusion, we should bear in mind that civil liberties are those rights which are not legitimated according to some universal feature of humanity; instead they are rights only in so far as they are allowed by the state, they are �granted from above’. Citizenship is often defined in terms of a reciprocal relationship between an individual (the citizen) and the machinery of political administration (the state), and the terms and conditions of this relationship — the rights and duties — are enshrined in positive law. Accordingly, they differ across time and space. Human rights, by contrast, come from �below’, from a universal set of ethical principles which seek to ensure the equal individual life, and which are applicable to all peoples at all times and in all places. Thus, in principle1 if not in practice1 they are not subject to the whims of any political machinery.

This seems at first glance to be a simple distinction, but as this chapter progresSes1 it should become clear that it is far from it. I want to divide the remainder of this chapter into the following sections. First, I will offer a brief history of the idea of human rights1 partly as an overview and partly as an introduction to some of the major themes and names that will reappear throughout the book. Second, I want to look in more detail at the three claims which are made about the properties of human rights, namely:

Human rights are universal, that is, they belong to each of us regardless of ethnicity, race, genders sexuality, age, religion, political conviction, or type of government.

Human rights are incontrovertible that is, they are absolute and innate. They are not grants from states, and thus cannot be removed or denied by any political authority and they do not require, and are not negated by the absence of, any corresponding duties.

Human rights are subjective. They are the properties of individual subjects who possess them because of their capacity for rationality, agency and autonomy.

Each of these properties can be analysed in terms of the problems which arise from it. So, the claim that rights are universal has been subject to criticism from those who suggest that universality is too reliant upon the meaningless abstract notion of natural law, as well as from those who argue that it is ignorant of cultural difference. Similarly, the claim that rights are incontrovertible forces us, in the first instance, to devise a hierarchy of rights to overcome any potential conflicts, and also to counter any suggestion that rights always require reciprocal duties. Also, to claim that rights are subjective requires us to consider the thorny topic of human rationality and agency and then, since active subjects are usually individuals, to assess the charge that human rights betray a Western bias towards individualism.

Third, I want to make the link — an important link if human rights are to be upheld in practice — between the idea of human rights as a moral convention and that of ethics as a social practice.

Fourth, I will discuss the extent to which the current discourse on human rights is interwoven with the discourse on social change and in particular modernity, which invariably connects this discourse with the development of the social sciences.

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