By: Raffaella Rady and Mark Eisa
Human rights is a topic that is widely discussed and debated in both academic and social fields. Whether in regards to the extent to which human rights are being respected by nations, the disregard of individual rights and community rights, or the moral grounds upon which human rights are founded on, the subject has been crucial to the study of many disciplines. Personally, I have experienced a vast difference in the way that human rights are discussed in social science courses compared with philosophy classes. While social science courses discuss past and present examples of countries experiencing political difficulty and hardship, such as the Middle East where many people argue that human rights are being violated and have been violated historically, philosophy courses focus on how different perspectives or philosophers define human rights, what they are founded on, and try to apply these views to current events.
However, often times the discussion of human rights does not end there. It touches on other terms, such as government and its duty, justice, injustice, morality, religion, and freedom, to say the least. For example, a common distinction in philosophy is between the views of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Locke held that there are moral duties in the state of nature (how humans existed before the forming of government) that come from God and although the state of nature was not that great of a place, it wasn’t that bad really. He said that there was some order in the state of nature and equates natural law (law in the state of nature) with moral law. Locke argued that there are moral duties that people recognized, and so they acted in a more contained way and realized without a government that they don’t have a right to all of the things they wanted. This is key because this differentiates him from Hobbes in terms of why a government is set up. While Locke emphasized morality from God in the state of nature, Hobbes maintained that the state of nature was chaotic to the point that he identified it as the ‘war of all against all’. It was such a terrible place, in his view, that a person should agree to whatever the sovereign wants, because any government is better than no government.
Locke’s viewpoint is a rights-based view, he argues that in the state of nature, you begin by owning yourself and, for example, no one can say you’ve done anything wrong if you simply grab an apple to eat. But then the apple must have become yours at some point to have the right to do that. So you begin with the intuition that you have the right, but when did it actually become yours? When you mixed your labour with it, by grabbing it, it became yours. He adds the Lockean Proviso which says that as long as that person leaves enough for others, it’s okay to take some. Locke also held that we should have a neutral judge who applies the law universally for everybody, and that’s why we put ourselves under obligation under the law. Yet, while Locke stated that when the government breaches our trust we have the right to rebel, and that there exists such a thing as the right to rebel, Hobbes maintained that we are to always obey the state no matter what.
These discussions are fundamental to our discussion of human rights, as they demonstrate how each of us defines human rights in our individual perspective. Our subjective perceptions play a dominating role in how we view worldly conflicts, protests, and government interactions with their communities, in our current world.
Human Rights in International Law
Throughout society, the law is meant to protect the citizens and make sure that a harmonious life is achieved. However, aspects of human rights have not been fully protected in international laws. The infringement on human rights has socio-economic affects,
Socio-economic human rights, such as that “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights: article 25) are currently, and by far, the most frequently violated human rights”. These rights are especially disregarded in countries that are dominated by unjust dictatorships as they deny their human capital. It is in these very countries that have poor economies and are subject to the lack of protection of human rights that the presence of genocide, tyranny, or religious persecution appear. There is still so much severe poverty, and so much need for aid, only because the poor are systematically impoverished by present institutional arrangements and have been so impoverished for a long time during which our advantage and their disadvantage have been compounded”. It is clear that human rights are whatever governments declare them to be. Thus, the human rights codes in each country depend on the morals and philosophies that each country follows. For instance, the moral foundation for some countries is based off of a theocratic totalitarianism, where the country is ruled by a group of people according to a religion. The issue with such an approach is that it does not support diversity as not all citizens may follow the same religion. In addition, the invasive nature some of the laws may cause a lack of resonance and increase tension between citizens of opposing beliefs. If this conflict reaches a significant state it could lead to an economic meltdown for that country because one of the major drivers for economic growth, productivity, is hindered.
The lack of human rights in more advanced countries has been cleverly accomplished through the legal system itself in more advanced countries. The critical potential of legal human rights can be sapped through revisions of the law – through explicit reformulation or amendment (‘anti-terrorism’ legislation), through adjudications that render other parts of the law coherent with human rights by diluting the latter, or through precedents that modify customary international law (recognizing preemptive occupations or the status of enemy combatants’). Some countries may claim that they follow the Declaration of Human Rights but not actually follow it. The Declaration of Human Rights was the first to “spell out basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy”. However, it is not common to see such a method of approach to the legal system. To illustrate, Canada has many human rights treaties, which include “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Optional Protocol (permitting individual complaints)” and many more.