Universal Declaration of Human Rights
By taking a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is visible that the qualities that overlap between equality and human rights are the egalitarian values mentioned in the statement, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights.”
This relationship is valuable for numerous bodies aside from national governments. International governmental bodies, NGOs, and private sectors all have an interest in the progression of this relationship. However, to really understand the complex ties between human rights and equality, it is beneficial to first take a better look at what each of these terms mean individually and then piece together how they work in relation to one another. Where human rights come from, what equality is, and why inequalities remain are all questions that can help give context to the relationship between the two. Furthermore, presenting various perspectives that aim to narrow down the relevance of these two terms gives deeper meaning to the ever-changing relationship through different approaches.
What are human rights? Where do they come from?
According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission human rights can be defined as: “The basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death. They apply regardless of where you are from, what you believe or how you choose to live your life.” This notion sounds ideal theoretically, but a quick glance at the state of affairs globally proves that this statement is all but true in varied aspects.
As previously mentioned, human rights have not always been distributed or protected equally for all human beings. These inequalities have led to several approaches that attempt to conceptualize the idea of human rights, as well as what the underlying causes of inequalities within the surrounding framework are by taking a more critical look at their content.
One of the most prominent theories about the basis of human rights is that they stem from the philosophical developments from the time of Enlightenment in Europe. The concept of ‘natural law’, developed by John Locke, connects the idea that humans are to possess natural rights independent of political recognition. Likewise, Immanuel Kant’s ideas about equality and moral autonomy of rational human beings further give context by providing a mechanism to justify and codify human rights.
Through the sociological theory of law and the work of Weber human rights can be described as a sort of sociological pattern of rule setting. Here, a social contract is said to be put into place where a society accepts rules from a legitimate source of authority in exchange for security and economic advantage. Interest Theory (Bentham) and Will Theory (Hart) are two of the most widely recognized theories that argue: “that the principle function of human rights is to protect and promote certain essential human interests,” and the latter, “that the validity of human rights based on the unique human capacity for freedom”. They are both revisionary theories that aim to provide a moral justification to human rights. By doing this they create the argument that since human rights are moral rights, they should be recognized as so, even if not always legally recognized or agreed upon by a society. Yet, both of these theories have received criticisms for their incapability to provide a full force of the rights they aim to protect.
Moreover, the relationship between equality and human rights can be related to both political philosophy as well as social theory. In a general sense, their goals are similar in that they hope to eliminate inequalities for individuals and groups based off their differences and provide a minimum standard of treatment.
What is equality?
The Equality and Human Rights Commission define equality as: “Ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents, it is also the belief that no one should have poorer life chances because of the way they were born, where they come from, what they believe, or whether they have a disability.” Recently more emphasis has been put on the practice of equality and the way that it is supported. For example, equality of outcome is the concept that everyone should be supported in a manner that allows them to have equal opportunity to equal resources therefore seeking to reduce differences in material conditions.
It can be argued that when a society does not put mechanisms to support all individuals to achieve the same goals it allows for gaps where exclusion and marginalization arise. This notion places importance on acknowledging the existence of inequalities, rather than just pushing for more equality. The recurring problem here is that the quest for equality is not just a demand for one thing, but several different things and often times it is difficult for a society to agree on their core values.
A mechanism to begin to identify where inequalities exist is to break down the types of equalities that are distinguishable. The five notable types of equality are: social, political, legal, economic, and moral. First, social equality is the idea that citizens of a society should have the same social abilities, and no one person should have more social privilege than another. It is meant to protect one’s right to develop their personality. Next, political equality ensures that everyone has the practical means to participate in political processes. Legal (or civil) equality encompasses some of the most basic forms of protection and is aimed to provide individuals with equal treatment under the law. The goals of economic equality are in place to ensure every person with equal opportunities to make economic progress. Moral equality, however, as a concept differs because it focuses mainly on protecting the worth of each person’s distinct interests. This idea comes stems from the concept of (moral) egalitarianism, which looks at equality as being central to justice. The main belief of egalitarianism is that at some level all human beings are of equal worth and therefore should be respected as such. Through this lens, egalitarians believe that if an individual is born into unjust circumstances measures should be taken to promote equality.
Amartya Sen’s Approach
When thinking about the relationship between human rights and equality, it can be argued that the most obvious link is the aim is to provide every person with the ability to live a good life no matter what. However, to what extent these rights are promised and under what conditions the evaluations occur raised interest for Amartya Sen. He argues that there are four core concerns with the way that society evaluates well-being, these being:
That when evaluating the function of resources it is crucial to take into account an individual’s abilities. This implies that though two people are given the same resources they are not always capable of the same result due to their distinct difference in ability. He believes that simply evaluating the means, without any focus on what a particular party may be able to do with them is not enough.
That individuals (especially those in deprived circumstances) follow the trend of ‘adaptive preferences’ in which they do not push to achieve what they deem out of their reach. He therefore pushes the notion that evaluations that do not consider a neutral observers perception of an objective circumstance and only focus on subjective metrics cannot be fully functioning.
It is key to evaluate both actual achievements and effective freedom. A common example would be a person’s health who is starving (due to lack of resources) and a person who is fasting (for religious or other reasons). Though they both may have a low nutritional state it is important to keep in mind that a person that is fasting still has the option to eat and that is crucial.
When evaluating the well being of individuals it is necessary to remain open minded and consider that there are other factors that influence their well-being.
Alongside the evaluation of these four concerns, Sen proposes The Capability Approach which focuses directly on the quality of life that individuals are actually able to achieve. Here ones quality of life is given more context by considering their ‘functionings’ and ‘capability’. In this sense, functionings can be seen as having a shelter, or being well-nourished. Functionings are meant to be states of ‘being and doing’. Capability, in turn, refers to an individual’s effective freedom to choose between functioning combinations that they deem valuable in life. A crucial element is the understanding that social arrangements should be set in a way that helps expand an individuals capabilities.
This approach can be used to measure the inequalities within a society by seeing how well the population is living given the surrounding circumstances. The concept of capability can be used for a wide scope of situations because it stems from the specific circumstances at hand, but also its realization is dependent on the specific local requirements. Because of this, it is possible to use this approach across the board in political, economic, and cultural scenarios. An example given by Sen is that being relatively income poor while living in a wealthy society can by proxy lead to absolute poverty in some capabilities because they require more resources to achieve. In this sense, Sen recognizes that the minimum standard needed to live a decent life will vary greatly upon the cultural and social norms surrounding an individual.
Further, though Sen’s Capability Approach recognizes individual circumstances as valid distinctions (such as ability, need, choice, concept of value, etc.) it also makes note that not all policy instruments are readily able to make adjustments for various situations. Instead of focusing on the flaws of policies, this approach provides a better insight on how to use the idea of freedoms to build systems that are more capable of fully supporting what individuals need and value. This is essential in the process of lessening global inequalities.
How Equality is Incorporated Within Human Rights
On an international level, the most common way to break down the categorization of rights would be to take a look at the three main bodies that incorporate equal rights for individuals. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Economic(, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) together aim to provide a structure for all states that have signed the treaties to ensure that human rights are justiciable by law. However, a significant criticism of the UDHR based human rights framework is that it is composed mainly of liberal-democratic views, making it often times unattainable or irrelevant for countries that fall outside of this spectrum. Likewise, the Western views embodied in the aforementioned treaties claim to make culture and civilization a priority, which again does not seem to fit well for societies that prioritize religion (i.e Buddhism, Hinduism) Though these criticisms must be taken into account, the progress that has emerged due to the UDHR, ICCPR, and ICESCR should not be minimized.
- Moreover, alongside the ICCPR and ICESCR, there are 7 core international treaty bodies that aim to provide more specific protection of individuals:
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (adopted in 1966, effective since 1969)
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (adopted in 1979, effective since 1981)
- United Nations Convention Against Torture (adopted in 1984, effective since 1984)
- International Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted in 1989, effective since 1989)
- International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (adopted in 2006, effective since 2008)
- International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (adopted in 1990, effective since 2003)
- International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (adopted in 2006, effective since 2010)
The UN seeks to protect individuals that may have been marginalized or treated unfairly previously by the creation of specific conventions. Each of the treaties have a corresponding treaty body whose aim is to monitor and report their implementation. The extent of success, however, varies greatly on political will and the desire to truly have a more just society.
Overall, though human rights aim to defend dignity and protect equality of all, it cannot work alone in the fight for injustices. Human rights stem from a demand for reform and as such, they must be complimented by new policies that reach to fulfill global justice. Otherwise, if the core issue is not tackled, calling for more equality will not be sustainable in a limited framework. By taking into considering the various approaches that consider the basis of human rights, it can be seen that human rights can be applicable to all individuals. The international bodies that aim to protect and promote equality help build a framework for change. However, the most essential element when considering the relationship between human rights and equality is that they do not work alone. Human rights are based on equality, but it is up the global community to make sure it implemented in all circumstances.