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Human rights are often defined as those rights that belong to persons simply by virtue of their being human. This definition neatly captures the ethical intuition of human moral equality that is at the core of human rights. The idea of human rights has been a central theme of modern liberal and democratic thought. It has also proven politically explosive, igniting the democratic revolutions that swept the Atlantic region at the end of the eighteenth century, and fanning the flames of democratization in the twentieth century. It is the commitment to human moral equality that gives human rights doctrine its revolutionary spark.

Human Rights History And Development

The idea that human rights belong to people by virtue of their being human makes human rights sound less controversial than they really are. Philosophically, the idea of human rights evolved out of the natural law or natural rights tradition, which still claims some adherents among contemporary proponents of human rights. Yet contemporary questions about the philosophical foundations of, and justifications for, human rights are highly divisive. Politically, the idea has a more convoluted pedigree, with diverse origins in the transnational campaign to abolish slavery, in the women’s rights and labor movements, in humanitarian projects such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions, and in the institutions of the League of Nations.

Human Rights EssayOne thing that is clear is that human rights are, both philosophically and politically, distinctively modern. Although the concept of human dignity is probably as old as human society itself, human rights are a modern invention. The two concepts must not be conflated: many ways of thinking about human dignity, such as in hierarchical clan, class, or caste societies, are antithetical to the moral equality at the core of human rights. This is not to deny the close connection between human rights and human dignity in contemporary theory and practice. The key international human rights instruments (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights) emphasize the idea of “equality in dignity” for all human beings, articulating a particular conception of human dignity grounded in the moral equality that human rights express.

The earliest explicit formulation of natural or human rights emerged in the context of the rigid feudal hierarchies of medieval Europe, where dignity was linked to birth and status. The terminology of natural rights was borrowed and adapted from the natural law discourses that dominated European legal, political, and theological thinking in the early modern period. The term natural rights essentially meant “rights held by everyone.” In the medieval context, this idea of equal natural rights played a significant leveling role. In a society in which rights and duties had been based on birth and status, equal rights undermined traditional forms of authority, helping to topple monarchies and transform social and economic relations. Theorist Thomas Hobbes was perhaps the first to argue that the ideas of moral freedom and equality could provide an independent and sufficient basis for political authority—though for Hobbes, this radical idea led to a very conservative conclusion: the transfer of all rights to an omnipotent sovereign.

Although Hobbes did not see the transformative implications of his argument, others certainly did, and the revolutionary potential of these ideas has yet to play out. If one begins from the premise that all people possess equal rights and freedom, there remains no valid justification for natural subjection or arbitrary power. In this sense, the idea of human rights is inherently democratic; it ignores social, economic, and political distinctions. While early proponents of natural human rights, such as philosopher John Locke, used them primarily to advance a bourgeois political agenda, once the genie was out of the bottle it was not long before marginalized people— slaves, women, laborers—used human rights to challenge the dominant classes.

The idea of natural human rights enjoyed considerable support among Enlightenment philosophers, although this support was often tempered by the thinkers’ various and extensive prejudices. It gained global political prominence during the Age of Revolution: the American Declaration of Independence invoked certain “self-evident” truths, including the equality of all men and the “inalienable” and God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen similarly extolled the “natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man” and cited “the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man [as] the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments.” These ideas quickly won wide currency, sparking upheavals throughout Europe and America. It also resonated globally within various religious and cultural communities whose indigenous conceptions of human dignity were founded in the same idea of human moral equality. That the specific terminology and mechanism of human rights emerged in the West is an artifact of history; human rights capture an idea whose origins and appeal are truly global and find expression in many forms.

The excesses of the French Revolution (which were often distorted or exaggerated by its opponents for political advantage) (1789–1799) helped to discredit the idea of natural human rights among elites in the nineteenth century. The idea generated considerable skepticism among conservatives interested in preserving monarchical regimes, socialists troubled by the “bourgeois” character of human rights, social Darwinists propagating a bastardized theory of social selection, and utilitarians dubious of the very idea that rights could mean anything other than guarantees enshrined in positive law. Still, social activists invoked natural human rights in the key struggles of the day (the term human rights did not enter common parlance until the twentieth century).

Human Rights In The Twentieth Century

The League of Nations, established at the conclusion of World War I (1914–1918), established numerous protections for rights. While the League did not survive, international protection for rights—especially worker’s rights and the rights of minorities—endured. At the outset of World War II (1939–1945), British and American officials declared in the Atlantic Charter that a key war aim for the Allied Powers was the creation of an international system that would protect and promote respect for human rights. At the war’s end, widespread horror and outrage at wartime atrocities helped to spur the newly formed United Nations (UN) to affirm, both in its Charter and in its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the dignity of the human person and the recognition of equal rights and freedoms for everyone. Subsequent treaties, including the two covenants and treaties on racial discrimination, discrimination against women, children’s rights, and torture, form the nucleus of a growing body of international human rights law.

Human rights played a significant role in the two most significant political developments of the postwar era: decolonization and the “third wave” of democratization. Human rights were implicated in the ongoing system of European colonialism and imperialism, often providing a pretext or rhetorical cover for naked political and economic ambition. At the same time, human rights provided a significant theoretical and political resource for colonized peoples seeking to throw off the yoke of foreign rule. Out of this experience emerged calls for new rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination.

Antiauthoritarian movements, especially in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s and in Eastern Europe in the later 1980s, relied heavily on human rights to generate domestic and international support for their struggles for democracy. Activists utilizing the power of prominent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the international media waged successful campaigns for democratization by highlighting the hypocrisy of their governments’ commitments to human rights. Such commitments, whether undertaken by governments in the form of concessions or as part of broader treaty obligations, proved an Achilles heel of regimes that flagrantly violated citizens’ rights. The normative (rather than legal) force of human rights was decisive in these struggles; neither the lack of global enforcement nor the absence of a genuine commitment to human rights on the part of the regimes prevented the idea from taking hold in the popular political imagination and stimulating demands for reform. Human rights are still invoked today wherever people seek to defend themselves against brutal governments.

Human Rights In International Law And Politics

In international law, human rights are established by treaty or by custom. Treaty obligations are binding on all signatory states. Some international lawyers argue that human rights have now achieved the status of customary law as well, making them binding even upon governments that have not ratified the relevant instruments. Traditionally human rights have been conceived as rights that individual citizens hold against (their) governments. Increasingly, however, human rights are invoked against governments of foreign states as well as against multinational corporations, international financial institutions, ethnic or religious groups, and a range of other nonstate actors.

Human rights law plays a major part in regulating international relations. A variety of institutions, including the UN’s Human Rights and Security Councils and its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and regional arrangements like the European Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe, and the Inter-American Court and Commission of Human Rights, help to monitor and protect human rights around the world. Critics deride the lack of enforcement capacity in the international human rights regime as evidence that it is ineffective or inconsequential. Such criticisms highlight an important problem, but tend to ignore the more diffuse, indirect effects of the regime. These include the status of human rights as the de facto standard of legitimacy for governmental conduct; violators often suffer economically, politically, and diplomatically for their poor performance.

In addition, NGOs, ranging from well-known organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to myriad local, national, and international groups, play a prominent role in monitoring human rights. Often using a “name and shame” strategy, these groups call attention to violations of human rights committed by governments and corporations and use the media to publicize these wrongs and assert pressure for change. They also lobby governments and increasingly take part in various international negotiations and deliberations. In the early twenty-first century, almost all debates in international politics take place at least in part within the human rights framework, including issues such as terrorism, development, the environment, human trafficking, and many others.

Key Controversies

Although human rights have become the predominant normative discourse in global politics, there is little agreement on their philosophical foundation or justification. Numerous justifications for human rights have been advanced over the years, from the natural rights arguments of the seventeenth century to more contemporary arguments based in autonomy, human capabilities, and human interests, among others. Some critics cite the uncertainty reflected in this plurality of justifications as a problem for their legitimacy, arguing that without a single, clear, and uncontroversial justification, human rights lose credibility. Yet it is not obvious why everyone has to agree on what reasons justify human rights in order to find the idea of human rights itself appealing. Human rights are better understood philosophically as considered judgments about what human moral equality requires, given the collective knowledge about, and experience of, the world.

One persistent challenge to human rights concerns their universality. This term misleadingly collapses several important dimensions of human rights into one concept. As Jack Donnelly has argued in his 2007 article “The Relative Universality of Human Rights,” what critics usually mean by universality is ontological universality or anthropological universality. The former refers to the philosophical foundations of human rights; the latter refers to the ubiquity of human rights in the cultural practices of societies around the world. Ontological universality would mean that there exists some single, transhistorical, and transcultural justification or moral foundation for human rights. No such foundation has been or is likely to be found. This fact has not prevented the emergence of human rights as the most important normative discourse of politics in the twenty-first century.

Anthropologically, human rights are not universal; they are not an inherent part of every society’s cultural practice. Cultural relativists sometimes seize on this fact in arguing that human rights are alien to many cultures and illegitimate for them. The thrust of this critique is that human rights reflect individualistic values and priorities and a particular conception of human dignity that are distinctly Western and therefore inappropriate for “non-Western” cultures or societies. In its most extreme form, this critique endorses a relativism in which the only standards appropriate for a society are those that reflect its existing values and beliefs. In milder forms, this critique is used to reject certain rights or understandings of rights that conflict with traditional cultural norms. The Asian values debate of the early 1990s exemplified this tension: many Asian elites claimed that Western notions of human rights were not appropriate for their more communally oriented societies. Opponents noted the self-serving nature of these arguments and pointed out that many of the societies in question lacked institutions that would allow people to choose for themselves what rights were or were not desirable. They also argued that the elites improperly treated culture as a static and homogenous entity.

There is room for advocates of human rights to argue for general or global standards while also allowing for and encouraging some variation at the levels of interpretation and implementation. Moreover, it should be emphasized that human rights are not an inherent part of any society’s cultural practice. They represent, in the West as well as elsewhere, a set of prescriptions for the equal treatment of human beings in modern social, political, and economic conditions. That these prescriptions often clash with deeply embedded cultural norms and practices is hardly surprising; it is this clash that ignites the revolutionary spark of human rights when proponents challenge the status quo. Thus, human rights might not be universal in the ontological or anthropological senses, but they are increasingly global, in that they are valued and invoked around the world.

Another long-running controversy regarding human rights concerns their so-called interdependence and indivisibility. Human rights are often divided into two categories: civil and political rights (i.e., the right to vote, the right to a free press) and economic, social, and cultural rights (i.e., the right to subsistence, the right to an education). Civil and political rights are sometimes characterized as “negative” rights, supposedly indicating that governments and individuals need only refrain from violating these rights. Economic, social, and cultural rights are often described as “positive” rights, suggesting that the state must fulfill these rights through positive action. Negative rights are sometimes described as first-generation rights, since they were supposedly conceived before and enshrined in law earlier than positive or second-generation rights and the even newer third-generation rights (such as development and self-determination).

These distinctions are conceptually dubious; many civil and political rights—the right to vote, the right to property, the right to security—require extensive governmental activity for their protection and fulfillment. The distinctions are also historically flawed: social and economic rights emerged alongside civil and political rights in the seventeenth century. That the latter were secured first in law says something about the sources of power in many Western societies but little about human rights. The distinction gained false credence because it was enlisted in the cold war rivalry between capitalism and communism, in which each side portrayed civil and political rights as incompatible with social and economic rights. The distinction was also employed in some developing countries to suggest that progress on second- and third-generation rights might justify (supposedly temporary) abridgements of first-generation rights. This “full belly thesis,” that people cared more about having food to eat than about abstract ideals like press freedom or democratic elections, was often used to justify authoritarian political practices.

Most scholars and activists in the early twenty-first century recognize that human rights are global in appeal and interdependent and indivisible in practice. Article 5 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, affirms that “all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Interdependence and indivisibility mean that rights cannot be subdivided into classes, categories, or generations; rights cannot be secure unless other rights are secure as well. The right to vote, for instance, is not secure if one lacks the right to security from physical violence and intimidation. The right to an education is meaningless without a right to adequate nutrition that makes learning possible.

A common criticism of human rights has been that they exclude or ignore women and people of color. This criticism is correct in two important respects. First, many rights have been defined quite narrowly and from a masculine perspective, making the idea of “women’s human rights” a necessary corrective to notions like liberty and security as they had traditionally been defined and understood by men. For example, what men typically mean by security—protection from the state and its agents and officers—does not address the primary security needs of women—protection from the violence that occurs in the domestic sphere. Second, it is also unfortunately true that human rights rhetoric has been invoked in rationalizing imperialistic behavior, often in the guise of the white man’s burden and mission civilisatrice or their contemporary analogs. These criticisms are thus very important parts of the ongoing development of human rights theory and practice. Yet they do not, as critics have sometimes claimed, demonstrate that human rights are inherently sexist or racist. Rather, they show the need to constantly subject human rights standards to internal and external critique as a way of developing and strengthening the commitment to human moral equality that animates them.

Human Rights And Political Science

Within the discipline of political science, human rights have—at least until quite recently—met with deep skepticism: scholars of international relations in the realist tradition regarded them as cheap talk that disguised states’ true interests in power; comparativists worried about their relevance in non-Western settings; and normative theorists questioned their universality and their philosophical foundations. Since the 1990s, this skepticism has been giving way to growing interest in human rights both as a dependent and an independent variable in social scientific analyses and as a central normative concept in political life.

In international relations, constructivists and those influenced by constructivism have shown how international norms influence domestic politics (such as through democratization). In transnational politics, human rights play a huge role, providing a common vocabulary and a nexus for networks of activists in a variety of issue areas. Even traditional scholars of international relations are beginning to take seriously the effects of human rights in trade relationships, in humanitarian intervention, and in the politics of international organizations. Scholars in the field of international political economy are, with colleagues in comparative politics, asking questions about how globalization affects human rights in a variety of contexts.

Comparativists have also been developing greater sophistication in their understanding of human rights, showing the (positive) effects of (greater) wealth and (democratic) regime type on respect for human rights. They seek explanations for puzzles regarding the increased violence associated with democratic transitions, the effects of trade and foreign direct investment, and the roles of courts, amnesties, and truth commissions in achieving transitional justice in conflicted societies. Scholars are also paying more attention to social activism and networking around human rights issues.

Among normative theorists, the study of human rights has been given new impetus by concerns about global justice and global democracy. Human rights are increasingly seen both as preconditions and products of deliberative or discursive politics. While the old philosophical debates persist, there is renewed attention to how human rights are used by people experiencing oppression and domination and how human rights articulate with concerns about human welfare and autonomy.


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  2. Charlesworth, Hilary. “What Are Women’s International Human Rights?” In Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives, edited by R. J. Cook. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
  3. Donnelly, Jack. “The Relative Universality of Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2007): 281–306.
  4. Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
  5. Freeman, Michael. Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002.
  6. Goodhart, Michael. “Neither Relative nor Universal: A Response to Donnelly.” Human Rights Quarterly 30, no. 1 (2008): 183–193.
  7. Howard, Rhoda E. “The Full-Belly Thesis: Should Economic Rights Take Priority Over Civil and Political Rights? Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa.” Human Rights Quarterly 5, no. 4 (1983): 467–490.
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  11. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. World Conference on Human Rights, June 14–25, 1993.
  12. Okin, Susan Moller. “Liberty and Welfare: Some Issues in Human Rights Theory.” In Human Rights: Nomos XXIII, edited by J. R. Pennock and J. W. Chapman. New York: New York University Press, 1981.
  13. Sen, Amartya. “Elements of a Theory of Human Rights.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 32, no. 4 (2004): 315–356.
  14. Shue, Henry. Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  15. Tuck, Richard. Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

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