Human Rights

Cathal Nolan

in International Relations

ISBN: 9780199743292
Published online March 2011 | | DOI:
Human Rights

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“Human rights” is a philosophically and historically powerful idea that all human beings share fundamental rights. These are said to emanate not from any social contract specific to a single political community, or from gracious or forced concession from an absolute sovereign or state, but from the essence of an individual’s humanity. It is an original conceit steeped in conceptions about natural law, later supplemented by social contract theory, and most recently by basic needs or natural justice arguments. Because of its claimed universalism, which is not always conceded by critics of the concept, “human rights” is an idea inherently controversial in a world of sovereign states. It has also come under attack by “postmodernist” and other cultural relativist critiques. Nevertheless, it has proven historically and surprisingly subversive of traditional cultural practices and political systems, be they feudal, authoritarian, totalitarian, or even democratic. The oldest stream of international conceptions of human rights is essentially liberal. This tradition stresses civil and political liberties of individuals, with rights to freedom held against the state, not by it on behalf of the nation or some other collective identity. After World War I, the debate over rights expanded to include positive social and economic rights (and minority rights, primarily in Eastern and Central Europe). This took place not in a universal fashion, but in organizations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), and only to a much lesser extent intermittently within the League of Nations. Issues of racial equality were also broached by Japan and China, but were initially rebuffed at the Paris Peace Conference, and again rebushed later within the league. The real breakthrough in internationalizing human rights came in 1944–1945 at the founding conferences of the United Nations at Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco, which led to issuance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and subsequently to two International Covenants, one on Civil and Political Rights and the other on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. From 1948, there followed four decades of furious codification and legal expansion, processes reflected in predominantly philosophical and legal literature as late as the 1980s, shifting to arguments about implementation and state obligation after that. By 2000 there was broad rhetorical and legal acceptance of human rights obligations by states, but enormous differences over real world implementation and—barriers are raised, not formed—new cultural and sovereign barriers against universal claims. Simultaneously, fresh demands on states tend now to be framed as expansive claims to essential rights, often newly identified from development, to environment, to the genome. These trends are all reflected in the literature, which is again filled with legal, philosophical, and even theological theory and debate. At the same time, a large parallel literature, often by practitioners, focuses on micro-emphasis on local or issue implementation.

Article.  9947 words. 

Subjects: International Relations

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