What is Wrong with Human Rights?

Stephen Stich (Canada, AC 06-08)


One aspect of Atlantic College, and presumably other United World Colleges, is a strong emphasis on Human Rights.  It seems that many individuals, particularly those who are educated at a United World College, are attracted to the idea of Human Rights because they address the injustices in the world.  For the youth of our day and age, this is a very healthy thing, since there are many injustices that could do with some form of correction.  However, what is possibly much less healthy is the unquestioning way in which we approach human rights.  For instance, what does the term Human Rights actually mean?  Where do they come from?  Who gave them to us?  What is their purpose?  And, most importantly, what effect do they have?  These are all essential questions when confronting the concept of Human Rights, questions which I feel are not being asked enough.  I will try to answer each to the best of my ability in order to try to explain my own views on human rights.


First, the definition of Human Rights is a bit of an elusive one, and really depends on who you ask.  For instance, Edmund Burke, one of the most influential conservative political thinkers, defines them in two ways.  The first he calls ‘Rights of Men’, which are some kind of universal, concrete, unwavering rules imposed on us from above.  He is highly critical of these, since he believes that they have no effect.  The reason for this, largely, is due to the difference in traditions of different societies (at a United World College, this is particularly noticeable).  Consequently, this caused Burke to define a second form of rights, the ‘Real Rights of Men’.  These are more abstract guidelines on which Burke believes laws should be based.  They are unique to each society, and take into account the traditions of each one in order to best influence society’s stability and gradual progression.  While there may be some flaws in Burke’s theory, his comments on rights, I believe, are quite poignant.  For example, a generally accepted right in western society is the right to freedom from discrimination.  This, it can be argued, includes discrimination based on sexual orientation.  If we were to employ Burke’s ‘Rights of Men’ idea here, it would naturally follow that countries which, traditionally, have had a strong aversion to homosexuality, would have to accept gay marriage because it is a right.  However, if this were to happen in a country such as Saudi Arabia, it is easy to imagine what kind of chaos would ensue.  However, if we were to employ Burke’s idea on the ‘Real Rights of Men’, we could say that a country such as Saudi Arabia does not need to have the right to homosexual marriage because allowing it would probably cause more problems than not.  However, in a country much more accepting of homosexuality such as Canada, it would be easy to argue that allowing homosexual marriage would be the best option, since the western views of society reflect the idea that homosexuals should have the same civil liberties as heterosexuals.  So, in this case, I am a supporter of gay marriage in Canada, but not in Saudi Arabia.


So, in defining what a Human Right is in this day and age, let us look at the most widely acclaimed statement concerning them: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created by the United Nations.  In it is contained many rights which are much more definable in terms of Burke’s ‘Rights of Men’ as opposed to his ‘Real Rights of Men’.  For instance, the assertion that everybody has the right to vacation with pay (which is in the Universal Declaration), is one which is technically spread across all of the countries included in the UN.  It is universal according to the Universal Declaration, but by no means is it equally applicable to all of them.  Nonetheless, it is still a universal Human Right.  This essentially means that all countries are forced to pay their citizens for taking a vacation.  In some developed countries, this is completely feasible – their economies are stable enough to support this.  However, in some undeveloped countries, this ‘right’ is most likely destructive, for it removes from the coffers of the state that which the state needs most in order to progress: money.  However, if each individual country was to adopt a statement similar to the Universal Declaration but with relation to its specific needs and abilities to provide them, then Human Rights would more closely approach the ‘Real Rights of Men’.  But, since this is clearly not the case (exemplified by the existence of the Universal Declaration), Human Rights in our day and age can be defined in terms of Burke’s ‘Rights of Men’.


Now that we know what Human Rights are (or at least one interpretation of them), we can proceed to answering the next two questions, which are closely linked to one another: Where do rights come from? and Who gave them to us?  I will answer both at the same time.  Before the modern concept of Human Rights was conceived, thinkers such as Rousseau spoke about Natural Rights, which were things given to us by some kind of a god or higher power (for Rousseau, it would have been the Christian god).  They existed because it was God’s will, and they were therefore unquestionably true (in that society, at that time).  Later, as states in the west became more secular, this concept evolved into the idea of Human Rights.  Essentially, Human Rights are intrinsic things which society has to guarantee us by virtue of us being human.  In terms of what they consist of, they are basically the same as Natural Rights (for example, the right to life, the right to free speech, etc.)  However, in their justification, they have one hole which Natural Rights do not have: whereas Natural Rights come from God, Human Rights do not.  So, where do Human Rights come from?  Simply put, they come from fellow human beings.  In 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN, politicians and bureaucrats from various different countries sat down together and decided what, as human beings, we should be guaranteed.  Then, for the next 60 years up until now, they have received nearly unchallenged support, which is very reminiscent of the support for Natural Rights during the Enlightenment.  However, again, Human Rights do not come from a higher power, but come from completely fallible human beings.  This unequivocally means that they must be challenged, else they become a kind of dogma, infesting themselves in the deepest recesses of tradition for all time, with no recourse to examination of a possibly better alternative.


So, now that we understand that Human Rights come from people like you and me, we next need to understand their purpose in order to determine whether or not they are having the desired effect and, if they are not having the desired effect, an alternative needs to be found.  In essence, the purpose of Human Rights is to prevent injustices.  Theoretically, when examining a society, an outside body (for example, the United Nations) can examine a statement on Human Rights (such as the Universal Declaration) and conclude whether unjust acts are being committed in a country.  Then, if some of these rights are found to be violated, the outside organization can take measures, such as sanctions, to encourage countries to conform to the regulations.  They are hence a method of setting boundaries for how countries can treat their citizens, and the way they are used by the UN is also a method of keeping countries in line.


Now, let us see if Human Rights can generally be effective.  In the past, the United Nations has clearly not shown itself capable of coping with problems concerning its own definition of Human Rights.  For example, the Right to Life was clearly not being met in genocidal situations such as Rwanda and the Balkans, and still the United Nations was able to accomplish nothing.  Following this, the Right to Life is possibly one of the easiest rights to define.  However, there is a large gap between a situation like genocide and other much more contestable ones, such as countries respecting a person’s Right to Privacy (which is a civil and political right, in the same category as the Right to Life).  For, really, what is the Right to Privacy?  For example, is it the right to have private showers, or is it the right to withhold certain information from one’s own government?  As it is defined in the UN Declaration, it is completely unclear.  So, conceivably, the United Nations could sanction a country which does not provide private showers for its own citizens.  Realistically, this is not likely to occur, but it is nevertheless possible.


This brings us to the next point.  One argument in favour of Human Rights is that they respect something known as common or universal morality – namely, that essentially every human being believes in these values and, for this reason, they should be rights.  There are several problems with this argument.  The first is, simply, that people do not necessarily all believe the same thing.  Again, this shows the gap between genocide and other tamer events.  For example, the Holocaust indicates that a sizeable number of people did support the mass scapegoating, deportation, and eventually the extermination of Jews due to racial reasons.  Nowadays, we would conclude that this is against the concept of Human Rights, since everybody has an equal Right to Life, and I would personally agree that Jews should not be exterminated based on their race.  Despite this, it is clear that even a moral question so fundamental and so simple as Does everybody have an equal Right to Life? is not agreed upon universally.  The idea that not all people from all places believe in the same moral way is further shown in different countries making radically different laws.  For instance, some Middle Eastern countries still support Sharia Law, whereas no western countries do.


The next problem is that, even if everybody did believe the same thing, this is no guarantee that what is believed is correct.  Numerous scientific examples support this, possibly most notably Galileo’s execution based on his assertion that the Earth was round.  In his day and age, he was seen as a heretic and was murdered for a belief which we now know to be scientifically true.  However, the view before his discovery that the Earth was flat was accepted by everybody.  This does not make it correct.  The continued examination of an idea from many different angles makes it more likely to be correct, and NOT the mass agreement concerning it.  So, to assume that Human Rights are inalienable and universal is to imply the claim that they are infallible, something which we, as ordinary human beings, should avoid thinking at all costs.  Furthermore, to assume that everybody has the same morality follows the same way, since it is not possible for us to know what moral values are held by each individual.  And, who knows?  Maybe there is a Galileo out there who has the answer to our universal morality, but our intense focus on the infallibility of Human Rights prevents this opinion from being expressed.  If we continue in our arrogant claim of correctness, we may never find out.


Anyway, even assuming that there is a common or universal morality, it does not by any means justify Human Rights.  In fact, it makes the concept even less credible.  Now, presumably this common set of values will include the idea that everybody has the Right to Life.  If this is assumed, then why does it need to be included in a Universal Declaration?  If it is so obvious, then why does it need to be written down?  If genocide is being committed in a certain country, should not all other countries come to the aid of the oppressed for the sake of common humanity, to uphold universally agreed-upon principles?  If yes, then there is no need for this right in the Universal Declaration, since countries would go to other countries’ aid anyway.  If no, then this means that the country does not support the view that everybody has the Right to Life, which means that there is no universal morality (which is against the premise of this argument, so we will leave it).  Taking the ‘yes’ argument further, this then means that there is no need for a Universal Declaration at all, since all the values that are contained in the universal morality will be represented by all peoples of all nations.  Also, this would eliminate the possibility for different interpretations of what Human Rights in the Universal Declaration mean (as in the Right to Privacy and others).  Finally, if there is a common morality, it can be effectively guaranteed that every country will have a corresponding law.  This will not only mean that all the same ‘Human Rights’ would be guaranteed anyway, but makes it much more enforceable, given that the justice system would be on the side of this commonly accepted value.


We have now seen that, irregardless of one’s opinion on universal morality, Human Rights are not justified, at least in their current form.  So, what is the alternative?  A possibility is each individual country supports its own belief system, as in Burke’s ‘Real Rights of Men’.  There are several positives for this.  The first is, obviously, that certain rights which are quite questionable could be discussed and concluded upon on a much smaller, more specific scale.  The second is that it would involve more individuals in the political decision-making process.  The third is that, if public opinion were to change on a certain issue, then the law would be much more easily changed, because each country would only have to change a law, instead of getting nearly 200 countries to agree to a change.


A problem with the idea of each country having its own belief system, of course, is that it might reduce international cooperation.  It is true that in an increasingly globalized world there is a proportionately-increasing need for cooperation between countries.  However, it is NOT true that having a universal set of Human Rights would guarantee this.  If a country agrees with another nation concerning the treatment of an international issue, they could easily bind together due to this common interest.  A good example of an arguably bad case of this is the US and the UK forming up to invade Iraq, even though it was against the wishes of the United Nations.  If, however, countries do not agree over an international issue (even if there is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights), then they will most certainly NOT cooperate with the majority opinion.  An example of this is the Chinese occupation of Tibet.  So, shedding the illusion that there is a justifiably universal set of Human Rights thereby also sheds the illusion that all the countries who have signed the Universal Declaration actually support all of the points contained in it.


To conclude, there are many things to be said about Human Rights as a concept, many of which are not said to an appropriate degree.  First, when thinking about Human Rights, it is important to evaluate what the term means and where it come from in order to further appraise their validity as a concept.  After this, we must examine their purpose in order to judge the level of their effectiveness.  Then, most importantly, it is necessary for us to examine alternatives in order to best be able to decide on how injustices in different areas of the world need to be resolved.  It is understandable that, as the motivated youth of our day, we all have the desire to change the world, and we most definitely realize that the concept of Human Rights is one way of looking at problems which need fixing.  However, we do not necessarily know if Human Rights as a concept is the best way of looking at these problems.  So, next time you encounter a Human Rights organization, think twice before joining.  Maybe it is the best option, maybe it is not.  However, it is certain that, without questioning, you will never know.


– United World College Student Magazine –


3 thoughts on “What is Wrong with Human Rights?

  1. Galileo Galilei was not executed, he was forced to withdraw his thesis. You are confusing him with Giordano Bruno who was burnt.
    Otherwise an impressive essay.

Tell us what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s