What Are Human Rights? (49): Universal Rights

Human rights are universal rights, rights that all human beings have for no other reason than being human. That’s almost a tautological statement, and one which has been repeated millions of times. Universality is implicit in the name. This sets human rights apart from other types of rights, such as legal rights which only matter to those subject to the particular jurisdiction in which these legal rights apply, or contract rights which apply only to the people bound by a particular contract.

Despite this definition of human rights, their universality is often contested. Does a person with Down Syndrome have the right to work? Does a newborn baby have the right to free speech? Does a criminal have a right to freedom of movement? Do all potential immigrants have a right to unemployment benefits? Does a terrorist who can order his colleagues to stop torturing three other people have the right not to be tortured? Questions like these are often rhetorical: the unstated but understood answer is “of course not”. People who ask these questions perhaps do so because they want to deny the universality of human rights, and this denial in turn may come in handy when they try to justify violating the rights of some.

There’s in fact an easy answer to this apparent paradox. The universality of human rights is, like human rights themselves not a fact but an aspiration. We have to work to make it a fact, all the time knowing that we’ll probably never get there. We have to work to improve people’s capacities so that they can more fully enjoy their rights. In the case of the disabled, we should recognize that disability, rather than an inborn or acquired lack of capacity, is in fact – in part at least – a capacity that is reduced as a result of the way in which we have chosen to organize society. In the case of criminals, we tend to assume rather too quickly that criminal punishment necessarily involves restrictions of people freedom of movement. And so on. None of the rhetorical questions cited above strikes a fatal blow to the ideal of universality.

More on universality is here. More posts in this series are here.

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