The United Nations defines human rights as “[…] rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, religion, language or any other status” (OHCHR 2009). They are rights that are guaranteed to all human beings simply because they are human. When people speak of ‘having a right’ or ‘it is their right’ to have this or that or to do that or the other, it is usually a reference to their human rights. To have a right implies an entitlement to something.
Other people are obligated to give it to you and if this right is endangered or denied then you can make special claims on political, moral and social grounds that will galvanize the concerned parties into action and obligate the person guilty of denying the rights to discharge them even if they are not willing. Rights can therefore be termed as rules of interaction between persons; guidelines on how humans should relate to each other. A violation of these rules is not only improper; it may subject someone to special corrective claims as well as sanctions usually but not always at the discretion of the rights holder.
Right holders are therefore not just passive beneficiaries of their rights but are actively in control of them. It is worth noting that human rights are not simply abstract principles such as equality, security or liberty. Rather, they refer to the social practices that have been instituted precisely for the realization of those values and are recognized by law (Donnelly 2003, p. 7-8; 11). The international treaties on human rights have summarized human rights under two categories; civil and political rights on one hand and socio-cultural and economic rights on the other.
Civil and political rights constitute the freedom of assembly, freedom from torture, freedom of speech, freedom from slavery and the right to a fair trial. On the other hand, socio- cultural and economic rights cover the right to social security, the right to equal wages for the same work irrespective of gender, right to leisure time with control of working hours, right to good health, right to free basic education and the right to take part in the community cultural life (Asher and Banks 2007, p. 4).
The violation of human rights is more commonly referred to as human rights abuse. It may include physical and sexual assault, mass killings, torture, unlawful detention, disappearances of persons, forced displacement among others. Asher and Banks (2007, p. 4) point out that abuses of socio- cultural and economic rights are not as easy to pinpoint as civil and political rights violations but include forced labor, withholding of humanitarian relief supplies, destruction or seizing of property, and the various forms of discrimination.
It is precisely because of these violations of human rights on a global scale that the international community sought to form treaties and declarations that would legally bind countries and compel them to observe human rights, thereby protecting all humans regardless of their place in society and their country of origin. However, before analyzing human rights in international relations, it is important to first of all understand their justification. Justification of human rights As earlier mentioned, human rights are guaranteed to humans simply by virtue of their being humans.
They are equal rights, that is, one is either a human being or not. Therefore they apply equally to all humans across the board. They are also inalienable, that is, one cannot stop being a human even though he or she behaves in a totally inhuman way or conversely, is treated in an inhuman manner (Donnelly 2003, p. 10). Some people may argue that human rights should not apply to certain categories of people especially those who behave in an inhuman way towards others. But since these people cannot stop being humans, their rights remain inalienable. Thus even prisoners have their rights.
However, it is worth noting that infringement of other people’s rights may cause one to loose some of his or her rights as a form of sanction. Our entitlement to human rights comes with the responsibility of ensuring that the rights of others are respected as well but even when some of these rights are taken away as a sanction for violations, it is well nigh impossible to forfeit all rights and one remains entitled to at least some fundamental rights whose violation may cause an outcry from human rights advocates – never mind that this person has violated other people’s rights (Orend 2002, p. 7). This gives rise to the question; what justifies the holding of human rights? One of the grounds on which the holding of human rights is justified is the fact that it is intrinsic to human nature. We all share a core belief that it is profoundly and distinctly wrong to cause a fellow human being to suffer. The occasioning of such harm and suffering is viewed as unjust and below what is expected of human behavior and can therefore not be tolerated at any cost. The only exception to this is if the harm inflicted is in self defense or defense of others.
Thus human rights do not exist because of force or over-romanticizing of issues but simply because of an intrinsic compulsion to treat fellow human beings in a minimally civilized manner (Orend 2002, p. 69; 73). This argument draws heavily from social morality. Human rights exist in the beliefs that are shared by humans across the globe. They are a result of ethical customs and practices and their codification into law only facilitate their application though they existed before the law (Orend 2002, p. 76).
The grounding of human rights on morality and ethics has however come under criticism. Some people feel that moral norms are an illusion that has subconsciously been entrenched into our thoughts and our language. This gives rise to the problem of justification. It is important for human rights to be grounded on an objective viewpoint rather than the subjectivity of others who wish to impose their beliefs on the rest of the populace (Gorecki 1996, p. 19). However, morality appears to be the best grounds for justification of human rights.
This is because morality and ethics are universally upheld and all societies have a code of conduct that implies respect for fellow human beings with some sanctions when these are violated. In deed as Gorecki (1996, p. 17-18) asserts, the inalienable rights of liberty, life as well as the pursuit of happiness as proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence were not proclaimed because of the subjective thoughts of Thomas Jefferson or the imposition of the Continental Congress.
They were given independent of any subjective views since every man has these inherent rights by virtue of their humanity. Thus in this sense, human rights are objectively justified. Other validations for human rights are based on religious principles. Such arguments usually posit that human rights are ordained by God and should therefore be observed since not doing so would be in violation of God’s teachings. The grounding of human rights in religious teachings places them beyond interference by man or government.
Such arguments have been referred to as metaphysical justifications and they place human rights justification beyond human design; linking them to the supernatural (Edel 1978, p. 126; 128). However, Orend (2002, p. 73) argues that the premises on which religious justifications are based are ‘controversial’ as well as ‘exclusionary’ and go against the principle of equality and universalism with respect to the protection of human rights. A third human rights justification is based on the premise of legal positivism.
Legal positivism implies that it is only those rights which have been ratified into law that are applicable and legitimate. Thus people are compelled to observe human rights lest they be punished by the law. The penalties for not obeying human rights are outlined and include imprisonment, the payment of fines and simply the burden of a criminal record. There are numerous declarations, charters and treaties which provide these legal guidelines for the countries and they apply across the globe. However, Orend (2002, p. 4) points out a weakness in this justification, stating that in the event that some important human rights have not been ratified, then this may pose a problem since people do not feel obliged to observe them. Human rights and international relations Human rights are universal and are therefore guaranteed by international law. International human rights laws have been expressed through the formation of treaties, application of general human rights principles and customary international law among others.
International laws on human rights obligate governments across the globe to act in certain ways or to desist from engaging in particular acts that may violate the rights of the citizens. This is done with a view to protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of all humans across the globe (OHCHR 2009). There are numerous international treaties, charters and declarations that have been internationally agreed upon through numerous human rights conventions and which outline how international human rights will be handled.
For instance, the 1945 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 7 states that no one should be subjected to any inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment. Ignatieff terms this article as the ‘juridical revolution’ of human rights. Other internationally recognized human rights documents are the 1948 Geneva conventions, the 1949 Geneva conventions revision, the International convention on asylum of 1951 and the Universal Declaration of human rights (Ignatieff et al 2003, p. vii). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
It is one of the most recognized human rights documents and outline basic rights and freedoms of the individual which are to be recognized globally (UN 2009). The Universal declaration of human rights- this great and inspiring instrument was born of an increased sense of responsibility by the international community for the promotion and protection of man’s basic rights and freedoms. The world has come to a clear realization of the fact that freedom, justice and world peace can only be assured through the international promotion and protection of these rights and freedoms.
U Thant, Third United Nations Secretary- General, 1961-1971 (UN Cyberschoolbus, 2009) The above quote perhaps best exemplifies the commitment of the international community towards the promotion of human rights. The internationalization of human rights meant that they were no longer the preserve of the state but that the states were answerable to the international community for the treatment that they accorded their citizens. However, there is no decisive action with which to deal with states that violate international rights violations (Forsythe 2006, p. 5).
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