Human rights (natural rights) are rights which some hold to be "inalienable" and belonging to all humans, according to natural law. Such rights are believed, by proponents, to be necessary for freedom and the maintenance of a "reasonable" quality of life.
If a right is inalienable, that means it cannot be bestowed, granted, limited, bartered away, or sold away (e.g., one cannot sell oneself into slavery). The issue of which rights are inalienable and which are not (or whether any rights are inalienable rather than granted or bestowed) is an ancient and ongoing controversy.
- 1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- 2 A critical assessment and history of human rights
- 3 External Resources
- 4 SourceWatch Resources
- 5 References
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1948 the United Nations made the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was an over-arching set of standards by which Governments, organizations and individuals would measure their behaviour towards each other.
This Declaration introduced the notion in the public realm that rights had a moral dimension, independent of and overriding where relevant the legislature or government, which granted specific legal rights. The notion was not new; for example, Thomas Paine had argued in this way in his book The Rights of Man.
A critical assessment and history of human rights
"Human Rights" wasn’t written on a tablet handed down by god, but it is a concept that has been at the center of ideological battles to determine its definition, which subgroups would actually obtain the benefits or added protection, and its actionability. In other words, (1) what are those rights, (2) who is human and deserves those rights, and (3) what to do if those "rights" are not forthcoming/denied.
The definition of human rights involved a major dispute between the United States and the Soviet Union. The American negotiators sought to define human rights as primarily rights to speech, congregation/association, and other non-material aspects to life; the Soviet Union sought to include rights to food, education and other material aspects to life. In the end, the Soviet Union negotiators for the most part abandoned the negotiations and the UN declaration contained primarily the United States proposals of a definition of human rights. The implication of the adopted human rights convention is that it was not actionable, i.e., it didn’t create legal conditions for states to implement them, but the featured rights were primarily a statement of intent or ideal to strive for. And finally, while adopting a "universal" declaration of rights, the applicability was anything but all encompassing, and there was no guarantee that the rights of, say, the displaced native populations would be addressed in a meaningful way. Nor would the conflict between human rights and capital/corporate rights be addressed.
Human rights are a denatured/watered-down form of justice. In many ways, human rights when seen as a substitute for justice, undermine an actionable means to protect the interests of some group. Human rights and international law can be seen to be in conflict when human rights are utilized as a cynical means to substitute appeals to justice with a statement about rights. The latter is for the most part not actionable, is not well defined, and most vulnerable groups don’t have representation.
Uses of Human Rights
Although initially human rights languished as an actionable concept, this changed with the Cold War, after the Vietnam War and as a policy tool in Western development aims.
In the 1980s, the US instituted Helsinki Watch which sought to monitor "human rights" in the Soviet bloc using the human rights principles as a metric. Helsinki Watch proved to be an effective propaganda weapon, and proving the use of "human rights" against ideological opponents. "Human rights" were found to be so effective in discrediting the Soviet Union, that Helsinki Watch was recreated into several larger and better funded organizations which became known as Human Rights Watch and its affiliates focusing on different regions.
During the 1970s, after the Vietnam War, the image of the United States had been tarnished due to the protracted war. In 1975, the year the war ended, president Jimmy Carter launched "human rights" as a guiding principle for US policy and propaganda. Although vehemently opposed by most US policy elites, they quickly grasped the concept's propaganda appeal and use to wage war by other means. The "human rights" concept quickly became enshrined in many official US agencies, quasi-governmental bodies and universities.
Other Uses of Human Rights
In 2011, there are thousands of human rights organizations, each with their own different mandate/agenda, different scope, and either with private, public or mixed funding. Human rights organizations can be used for the following purposes:
- to legitimately highlight a certain a subset of abuses/plight of a given group, e.g., violence against women, torture of political prisoners, etc.
- to hide, minimize or manipulate the reported abuse of a given group who a current power elite seeks to avoid or ignore. (Israel-Palestine section below)
- to set up civil society groups to create/mold states that are more pliable and easier to manipulate by Western powers (Haiti section below)
A history of bias
A brief history of human rights organizations focusing on Israel-Palestine is provided by Nabeel Abraham, et al. The position/activities of ten organizations pertaining Israel-Palestine are analyzed finding primarily an unwillingness to cover the issue of human rights abuses perpetrated against Palestinians. Abraham, et al., document "human rights" organizations that primarily aim to manipulate / obstruct the reporting of abuses in the area.
Civil society manipulation
After the fall of the Duvalier government in Haiti, the United States sought to create alternative civil society groups, e.g., lawyers associations, journalists associations, and human rights groups. These groups were funded by diverse US governmental (e.g., USAID) and quasi-governmental bodies (e.g., NED). The outcome sought was a state that would have some popular appeal and at the same time pliable to US interests. When friction developed between Aristide, the popular post-Duvalier president, the US used the civil society it created as a lever against Duvalier. Haitian "human rights organizations" issued fabricated reports for use in the American propaganda campaign surrounding the eventual CIA-instigated coup against Duvalier. Thomas Griffin, a researcher on Haitian human rights stated:
- What is so sick and so evil about what is happening in Haiti – if you want to do evil, you can do that very easily. … For a few dollars can buy a human rights organization down there. A few dollars can take a bar association and turn it against its elected president. That is what happened.
Human rights had become an accepted metric whereby some states should be seen to act, but some of the pressures emanating from this movement and panoply of organizations were in conflict with the interests of Western states and corporations. Many things changed after the US and most of its allies declared the so-called "war on terror", and the US sidelined/ignored many of the so-called human rights, which is an inevitable consequence of any "war" that uses torture, disappearances and rendition flights as a implements of state policy. The response of the human rights industry (organizations, universities) was to mold the human rights concept and organizations so that they would be more in synch with the interest of the main Western states where most human rights NGO are based and funded. Human rights seemed to give way to "Human Security" as guiding principle.
- Website on business and human rights: www.business-humanrights.org
- Other general Declarations have followed, notably the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989 www.unicef.org/crc/crc.htm
- Kirsten Sellars, The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, Sutton Publishing, 2002.
- Kirsten Sellars, op. cit.
- Kirsten Sellars, op. cit.
- Kirsten Sellars, op. cit.
- Kirsten Sellars, op. cit.
- Nabeel Abraham, Cheryl Rubenberg, Lisa Hajjar, Hilary Shadroui, Janice Terry, International Human Rights Organizations and the Palestine Question, in Middle East Report (MERIP), January-February 1988
- William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony, Cambridge Univ. Press 1996.
- Tom Griffin, Interviewed on Flashpoints, 21 February 2005. For a longer account: Thomas M. Griffin, "Haiti Human Rights Investigation: November 11-21, 2004" Center for the Study of Human Rights, Univ. of Miami School of Law. (footnotes excluded) The report has an extensive discussion of civic-society activities, and it is worth reading from page 20 onwards.
- Human Security is a concept developed at the Center for the Study of Governance at LSE. The primary intellectual developing this construct is Mary Kaldor.