Human Rights

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What are the main reasons a state might violate human rights, sign a human rights agreement, or take actions to stop human rights abuses by others? Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights create a universal standard for all countries, or are all human rights relative to individual countries?

In 1948, several countries signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which said that all humans were entitled to basic things like life, liberty, and security. As history has unfolded, many countries have committed human rights abuses. Often, these are the same countries that champion human rights. You might want to look at the alleged abuses of countries like the United States or Israel for examples of this disconnect.

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The United States of America was one of the biggest champions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which several countries signed in 1948. This document, as you might already know, articulated an array of principles regarding humans across the world.

It declared: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." It also stated: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."

You might want to look into what was happening in the United States of America in the late 40s. Were people of color secure from "degrading treatment or punishment"? Did people of color possess "security of person"?

With human rights, you might want to look at how the rhetoric aligns or doesn't align with human rights policies. You could argue that the United States' role in defeating Nazi Germany put them on the side of human rights. Yet you could argue that they too committed human rights abuses with their excessive bombing campaigns in major German cities.

Such a pattern continues throughout history. Countries tout themselves as defenders of human rights only to perpetuate human rights abuse themselves.

Think about how George W. Bush presented his wars as battles for freedom and democracy. Compare his rhetoric with his policies. Did Bush's administration not subject people to "torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment"?

When the United States tries to stop human rights abuses, it does so rather unevenly. Many countries commit human rights abuses, yet only some seem to be punished. In 2011, Barack Obama championed a NATO-led military campaign in Libya to stop human rights abuses. Why didn't Obama/NATO support a military campaign in Israel to stop their documented abuses?

One might argue that human rights is more of a rhetorical strategy than a practice. Countries can violate human rights if they have the right alliances and talking points. Countries can also try and stop other countries from violating human rights if those violators don’t have the right alliances or talking points.

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These scenarios are very different, but some theorists of international relations would argue that the circumstances under which they would happen would be exactly the same. Countries choose to violate human rights, sign a human rights agreement, or intervene to stop human rights abuses by others when they see these actions as advancing their own interests. This is known as a realist perspective on international relations. Certainly this would be the most likely scenario in which a nation chooses to violate the human rights of others. However, a state might choose to join organizations to protect human rights, or even to intervene in the affairs of nations to that end, for other reasons. They might be motivated, for example, by genuine concern for the victims of severe violations of human rights, like ethnic cleansing. They might be subject to pressures from their own people or domestic interest groups to take such a step. Moreover, they must believe that their efforts will have efficacy. This is especially true with interventions in other nations' domestic affairs. Human rights violations often occur in the context of domestic crises, and many nations remain reluctant to commit military force in particular to enforce human rights. This is complicated by the reality that many nations have different understandings about the nature of human rights. For this reason, universal understandings of human rights (like the UN Declaration in the wake of World War II) have proven notoriously difficult to enforce.

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