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Human Rights

  Human rights are rights which all human beings should possess because they are human beings irrespective of their citizenship, nationality, race, ethnicity, language, sex, sexuality, or abilities. They are therefore distinguishable from civil rights which are conferred on individuals because they are citizens of a state. Unless human rights are specifically embodied in constitutional provisions they are not legal rights.

The doctrine that there are human rights is a lineal descendant of the doctrine of natural rights proposed by the founders of liberal political thought, notably John Locke (see natural law and liberalism). They argued that although individuals necessarily sacrifice some freedoms to enter into a social contract there remain certain rights which are inalienable—such as the right to life, and freedom from arbitrary and oppressive government.

The modern doctrine of human rights is primarily concerned with the protection of individuals from persecution by the state, and is used as a normative base-line for criticizing the standards of governmental conduct throughout the world. A list of human rights was expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which included political, economic and social rights, but excluded collective rights. The UN Declaration influenced other statements of fundamental rights, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Although human rights are not enforced by the UN its agencies frequently report on their absence or violation in member-states; and non-governmental agencies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (including Helsinki Watch in Europe) are effective in publicizing human rights violations and putting moral pressure on the relevant states.

While the language of fundamental human rights has been associated with the spread of liberal and democratic ideals, it has its critics. Some maintain that there are no such things as universal human rights. They claim there are likely to be major differences of cultural interpretation, for instance, as to which freedoms should be constitutionally entrenched. Controversy also surrounds the content of human rights. Should they be restricted to feasible and enforceable civic and political rights, or should they be extended to include social and economic rights, like the right to employment, or the right to a basic income? utilitarian critics complain that to establish some rights as inviolable is to ignore the fact that most governmental activity involves judgements as to the weight to be given to potentially contesting values. Finally some political scientists argue that to reduce all questions of politics to questions of rights means that all public policy questions will eventually become ‘juridified’, that is, decided by judges rather than by more directly democratic processes. BO\'L

Further reading A. Gewirth, Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Applications; , J. Waldron (ed.), Theories of Rights.



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