Human Rights

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Human rights is the term generally used when seeking to explain why it is right that people should be treated as of equal worth and value regardless of where they have been born, how much money they have, their gender or the colour of their skin. The idea behind the phrase is that each of us has this entitlement in view simply of our humanity. Human rights were a key building block in the construction of the post war world (emblematised in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948) and received a further impetus with the end of the Cold War and the consequent decline of socialism in 1989.

The power of the term lies in its multifaceted nature. It is most easily understood as a bundle of specific entitlements - whether to be found in national, regional or international instruments - which can be acted upon by rights-holders themselves (in litigation to enforce their rights) or on their behalf by independent agencies charged with the protection of human rights (eg, a treaty body established to police a UN treaty). The openness of the language of rights inevitably leaves some leeway as to meaning and this is why the subject is so often thought of as a legal one, with judges either being called upon at the national or regional level to determine whether democratic legislatures have acted consistently with their rights’ charters, or engaging on the international stage in ruling definitively on egregious breaches of rights in the context of an international criminal prosecution.

In the absence of an international court of human rights, however, most of the enforcement of the human rights standards set by the United Nations is done by quasi-judicial committees created by treaty or by oversight bodies established within the UN itself (eg, the Human Rights Council). Inevitably this work is sometimes controversial, with states hostile to being subjected to human rights scrutiny and with allegations of double standards often dogging the way in which such bodies discharge their human rights duties.

Some believe that human rights is not a universal idea at all but rather a creature of ‘First World’ power. This critique drew strength as a result of the United States actions during the second Bush presidency, when the protection of human rights in the world seemed to many to have become one of the rationales for military intervention. Proponents of the idea of human rights continue to wrestle with this question of how far they are prepared to go to assert the rights of others, just as they continue to strive to establish intellectual foundations for the idea that can survive in a secular as well as a religious society. In the absence of any terms as remotely as compelling in their impact on world opinion or as broad in their reach, the idea of human rights is likely to remain for some time as a vital language through which to foester the articulation of progressive ideas.

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Author: Conor Gearty