What Are Human Rights? (56): Protection Against the State, and Something More

In our current, non-anarchist world, human rights depend on the state for their protection. Judicial courts, the police force and political institutions such as the welfare state and democratic governance are requirements for rights realization. Perhaps in some future state of affairs that will no longer be the case, but presently it is. Which means that human rights are more than just protective tools directed against the power of the state. They are part of the state. Or better they should be. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” says the Declaration of Independence of 1776. The state should protect its citizens against its own abuses of power (and of course also against the exercise of illegitimate power by fellow citizens, but that’s a topic for another time).

Many if not most violations of human rights are caused by state actions, even when the state in question is relatively benevolent. 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, most commonly by some part of the state but perhaps also by fellow citizens. This means that abstention and forbearance on the part of the state, no matter how important, are not enough. The state also has a duty to act in order to protect rights. And if human rights require that the state abstains, then the state should be actively engaged in enforcing its own abstention. (Needless to say that this implies a separation of powers).

This active engagement can even go one step further. Human rights sometimes require more than actively enforced abstention. What is true for torture is also true for economic rights: the state should not only avoid creating or maintaining poverty but also try to create a minimum amount of prosperity for all. A right not to suffer poverty is an example of a right that requires the obtention of something (although it can also require abstention as in the case of Mao’s Great Leap Forward). Here we’re dealing with so-called positive rights as opposed to negative rights. (In French they call it ”le droit à l’obtention et à l’exigence” as opposed to “le droit à la résistance et à la défense”).Whether you like it or not, the state is often one of the parties that should assist people in obtaining what they have a right to, at least on the condition that there’s no other, less invasive means of obtention.

But let’s not put too much emphasis on this distinction between abstention and obtention, or between negative and positive rights. Every human right, including those rights that seem to demand only the absence of state action, require state action, for example action in the form of a judgement of a court of justice concerning an illegal state action, and the police measures enforcing this kind of judgement. The state should commit, as well as omit; prevent, provide, protect and engender, as well as forbear; and it’s not at all obvious that particular types of human rights systematically need more of one or the other type of state conduct.

Something merely negative, such as abstention, forbearance or a limited state, can never constitute a state, as Hannah Arendt has rightly stressed in “On Revolution”. There is a reason for having a state.

Human rights, particularly in the early stages of their historical development, were considered as primarily directed against the state. This was also the main cause of their initial success. The theory of anti-state rights was inherent in the idea of human rights as natural rights. Natural rights, as opposed to legal rights, are not given by the state and can be used by citizens as an instrument of defense against the state.

However, none of this should make us forget that there is something inherently positive in the state and that rights can’t be entirely “natural”, whatever that means, at least not if we want them to be real and enforceable. As things are in our day and age, it’s often the state and its legal rights that protect us against violations of our human rights, at least ideally and more commonly when the state is a democracy. It does this, not only by passively abstaining, but also by actively doing something.

More posts in this series are here.

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2 thoughts on “What Are Human Rights? (56): Protection Against the State, and Something More”

  1. Is state power the main problem?

    The original Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml) includes the right to work, education and health care. These things cost money and have been gradually dropped from the definition.

    Racial equality and the right to vote are also there. It took a lot of state power to establish this in the US South. Gender equality also has largely been imposed by state pressure and some legislation.

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    1. All true, accept the “dropping” of work, education etc. – that is a US anomaly, elsewhere in the world those are considered rights. And it’s not just those rights that cost money.

      State power can do a lot of good as you say, but a lot of bad as well. That is just a truism I think.

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