What Are Human Rights? (9): Horizontal Rights

It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped. Hubert H. Humphrey

I completely agree with this quote, but what seems to be forgotten is that human rights not only depend on the state. Citizens have a duty to respect each other’s rights, and can do much to hurt or protect these rights. Here’s a post on the subject in relation to economic rights.

True, in many cases citizens do not have enough power to do so, and human rights then depend on judicial and political institutions that in turn depend on the protection of the state. This shows that human rights are more than just protective tools directed against the power of the state. They are part of the state. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” says the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

Of course, protection against the state is an important function of human rights, and should not be neglected. Many violations of human rights are caused by state actions. Power corrupts, and that is why we need rights to limit power. However, without power, rights are useless. Human rights limit the actions of the state, determine what a state is not allowed to do or should refrain from doing, and define those areas where the state is not allowed to interfere. But human rights also, and positively, determine what the state should do. They demand positive action and interference from the state.

For example: the state should not only avoid torturing its citizens, it should also actively protect and help those citizens who are tortured, either by fellow citizens or by some part of the state.

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