By Sam Grant, René Cassin Campaigns and Programmes Officer, July 2014
“Human rights are inscribed in the hearts of people; they were there long before lawmakers drafted their first proclamation.” Mary Robinson
What is a Human Right? Briefly put, a human right is a right you have by virtue of being human. However, this tautological answer is too simple to be satisfying. In order to understand the wider implications of human rights we must construct a broader and more complex answer, by drawing on resources from legal, philosophical and sociological disciplines.
One does not have to be a human rights expert or even be mildly familiar with current affairs to note that human rights have become common coinage in discussions on education, immigration, crime and punishment, minority rights, military conduct in war to name but a few areas. Yet, ‘human rights’ is a term that is misused and misappropriated by some people and misunderstood by many more. The current debate in the UK about the utility and ‘Britishness’ of the 1998 Human Rights Act is a casing point where misunderstanding is rife.
René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights in the UK, envisions a world in which everybody can enjoy their full human rights as set out by Monsieur René Cassin and his co-authors in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That Declaration recognises the ‘inherent dignity and…the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [as] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’ In subsequent decades this poetic idea has taken sturdier shape in human rights law detailed in numerous international declarations, conventions and treaties that now act as common law in many countries. Yet, human rights law is a product of the human rights movement and not its entire sum. To appreciate human rights as living and evolving we need to understand the intellectual body of thought behind human rights, and acknowledge that as the world and humans develop so to do the rights that protect us.
The historical development of rights was far from neat or linear. The precursors to contemporary ideas on human rights can be found throughout history, in Hindu, Confucian, and Buddhist texts as well as the Tanakh, New Testament and the Koran, not to mention classical Greek, Babylonian and Roman sources. There are rich philosophical debates that span centuries, and can help us define what we are referring to when we invoke human rights as inherent and inalienable. The works of 17th century English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are often pointed to as defining points of departure from earlier ‘codes of behaviour’ to the modern concept of universal rights. Both thinkers make us consider the concepts of ‘natural’ rights through the idea of a social contract between people and government, their work has been rebutted, responded to and rehashed to build up a vast anthology of philosophical literature that supports, critiques and pushes human rights law in different directions.
Even though we live in an age of an unprecedented amount of jurisprudence on human rights, there are still plenty of questions to be asked. To operate sophistically in the vibrant world of human rights, one must ask, what constitutes human rights, whom do these rights belong to, whose responsibility is it to protect these rights and how should these rights be protected? Answers to those questions, cannot and should not be drawn entirely from the remit of the legal world. To answer these questions fully and legitimately, one must examine the intellectual roots of human rights, its philosophy and its sociology. Whilst there is a seductive simplicity to human rights and what it pertains to, to truly grasp human rights, its effects, causes and future direction, one must embrace more than the law.