What Are Human Rights? (18): Human Rights Minimalism and the Theory of Basic Human Rights

Many human rights theorists adopt a kind of human rights minimalism, in the sense that they focus on a subset of the internationally recognized set of human rights which they call basic rights. In most cases, they do so for practical, strategic or opportunistic reasons and not because they consider the rights that they leave out to be less important. An expression often used by rights minimalists is a “thin theory of human rights”.

Typically, a thin theory of rights on includes the following:

  • A right against killing
  • A right against bodily assault such as torture, rape, violence etc.
  • Freedom from slavery
  • Freedom of thought and conscience
  • A right to property
  • Freedom of expression, freedom of religion

Rights such as political participation, economic rights etc. are not included.

John Rawls in his The Law of Peoples makes a distinction between 3 kinds of “peoples” or nations: liberal ones, decent but not liberal ones, and outlaws or “societies burdened by unfavorable conditions”. The first two are “well-ordered” and deserve mutual respect.

Decent nations are not liberal in the sense that they respect all human rights and democratic principles. They may have state religions; they often do not allow adherents of minority faiths or other types of minorities to hold positions of power; they are very hierarchical; they organize political participation via informal consultation rather than elections etc. However, they respect “basic human rights”, and only the basic ones, otherwise they would be liberal.

Rawls considers all human rights to be important, but in non-ideal theory, where you have to deal with states which are more or less removed from the ideal, one has to find a modus vivendi with these states. It is indeed true that holding up a moral standard which is too demanding, may force them to retreat into their previous positions. Some midway point, given by basic human rights, can be a strategically smart move, as a way to get somewhere, but can perhaps also justify violations of other, “non-basic” rights, because “these are not basic and therefore less urgent and less important”, or because “the circumstances which burden us do not permit progress beyond basic rights”.

Michael Ignatieff similarly adopts a “basic rights” approach. His worry is that a wide human rights approach may be conceived as biased, as western ethnocentrism or imperialism. A narrow concept avoids this criticism because there is near universal agreement on the importance of life, bodily security, the avoidance of pain etc.

The problem with this and really any theory of “basic rights” is that a narrow interpretation of rights makes almost everyone “decent” and legitimate and that it robs the concept of rights of any critical force. They can do “no work” as they say.

Perhaps the strongest argument against any theory of basic rights is the interdependence of all human rights. Focusing on a small subset of so-called basic rights obscures the fact that even these rights depend on other, supposedly non-basic rights. Do you think Abu Ghraib would have come to light and would have been stopped in a country where freedom of expression isn’t protected? And how can people be protected against violence, rape and slavery when economic rights are not protected?

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