Global Politics: Human Rights
This article discusses human rights in the context of global politics and international law. It traces the development of the idea from natural law to the official declaration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. The article discusses human rights in relation to international law, but also considers the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in human rights work. The article points out criticisms that have been made against the notion of human rights, such as its ambiguity and lack of enforcement. The article concludes with a consideration of the future of human rights and the role of education in furthering human rights knowledge and achievement.
Keywords: Globalization; Human Rights; International Law; Natural Law; Political Treaties; Political Sociology; United Nations; Universal rights; Universalism
Formulating a Concept of Human Rights
The concept of human rights is not new. Throughout history, many different religions and philosophies have conceived of basic entitlements to which the individual has claim simply for being human. These entitlements have not always been articulated as "rights" and have not always been conceived of in the same way. There has also been wide variation in theories regarding the source of these rights, the practical claim to them, and the universality of the concept.
Since the 1948 passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), whenever the term human rights is used it usually evokes the idea of "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" and refers to the specific rights in the Declaration. Yet, as noted before, the idea of human rights is rooted in a much longer philosophical debate. Many philosophers wrote about natural law, or universal rights, during the Enlightenment era in Europe. These universal rights were seen as being fundamentally granted to everyone, usually considered as granted from God, and were conceived of separately from the legal rights granted by the state. As Edward Demenchonok has recounted,
In Europe, these fundamental rights were recognized as sacred, while the state and its laws, positive rights posited by human lawmakers, were considered profane. Human rights imply not only an interest but also a moral obligation (an individual's vocation from God) and, therefore, they are superior to any sociopolitical or utilitarian considerations. Universal human rights are the ethical criteria for positive social rights. Such an ethical justification of rights was sustained by Kant, Fichte, von Humbolt, and other representatives of German liberalism (2009, p. 279).
Indeed, many of the early notions of human rights were discussed in terms of individual freedom, and the limitations (or lack of limitations) placed on the inherent freedom of humanity. Thus, in the philosophy of some Enlightenment thinkers, human rights superseded those of the state, making the state's laws valid only if they did not inhibit the individual's human rights. It should be noted, however, that the Enlightenment was also a period of philosophy in which many were harshly opposed to the idea of natural or universal rights, and they argued that any discussion of rights outside of the state was meaningless. This debate over whether human rights can possibly exist has continued throughout the centuries.
While philosophers had conceived of these rights for some time, the most frequently cited cases in which human rights are first demanded in written form are the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789. The American Declaration of Independence asserted that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The French declaration of the Rights of Man likewise contended that "men are born and remain free and equal in rights" (Sen, 2009, p. 355). The big development was that instead of just philosophizing about the existence of the rights, both of these documents were making a demand for the rights to be recognized and respected, and that demand had the promise of force behind it. Instead of operating separately from the State, both documents hold the State directly accountable to greater human rights.
Following these formal assertions that human rights had power (and emboldened by the successful revolutions with which both documents had been associated), the notion of human rights became more explicitly articulated in the global antislavery movements and later in new discussions over international law and accountability that came following World War I (Frezzo & Araghi, 2007). Yet, just as the notion of human rights came to be more and more widely accepted throughout the globe, the horrific events of World War II led to a renewed need for an international discussion of whether human rights were agreed upon, and if so, how they could be made into something more concrete than an ideological position.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
At the end of World War II, the international body of the United Nations was formed to promote peace and cooperation between nations. An early concern of the new UN was the issue of human rights. Coming on the heels of the genocide and massive human destruction that had occurred in the course of World War II in Europe and Asia, the need for protection of human rights was widely felt. As a result, the Charter of the United Nations calls for "reaffirmed faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person" (United Nations Charter, Preamble). Despite the widespread acceptance of the idea of human rights, many pointed out that the concept was still vague and that there was a need for a specific set of rights that could be internationally agreed upon and to which all nations could (or should) commit to respecting.
In 1947 work began on what would become the first global declaration of what human rights actually meant. The effort was undertaken by an international team of scholars and activists, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an active proponent of the need for universal human rights. The goal was to define what rights should be considered universal and protected and respected regardless of specific local laws and governmental ideology. The result, after several drafts, was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 (Sen, 2009; Menke, 2009; Frezzo & Araghi, 2007; Glendon, 2001).
The UDHR consists of thirty articles and lists specific rights that are "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" (UDHR, Preamble). The rights range from general rights, such as "the right to life, liberty and security of person" (UDHR, Article 3) to more specific rights, such as freedom from "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" (UDHR, Article 5). It is in these specific rights that the UDHR was such a pivotal move in human rights development, since the general notion of freedom and the right to pursue happiness had been present for centuries. The UDHR, as Amartya Sen describes, "takes a much larger list of freedoms and claims under its protective umbrella…This is quite a radical departure from the confined limits of the American Declaration of 1776 or the French affirmation of 1789" (Sen, 2009, p. 380).
It is important to note however, that the rights are not guaranteed in any forceful way by the UDHR. The UDHR is meant to affect the behavior of nations, but it cannot regulate that behavior. Thus, as Sen points out, "the framers of the Universal Declaration in 1948 clearly hoped that the articulated recognition of human rights would serve as a kind of template for new laws that would be enacted to legalize those human rights across the world," but there was no legal structure in place at the time of its adoption to force that to occur (Sen, 2009, p. 359).
The rights put forth in the UDHR are not binding, but in 1966 the United Nations adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These two treaties make the rights put forth in the UDHR into international human rights law; and these laws are enforceable by the United Nations Security Council.
Other treaties have followed and have endeavored to make human rights law more clear and enforceable, with varying degrees of success. Many regional organizations, such as the Organization of American States (OAS), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the European Union (EU), and the African Union (AU), among others, have also developed regional treaties and agreements to protect human rights in the member states. Christine Min...
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