Since the concept
of a natural right
was first developed in the fourteenth-century, the topic of human rights
has become an increasingly important issue in the modern world due to an unprecedented importance in international relations
. Despite its importance, this is a subject that raises many questions that are both difficult to answer and unavoidable. What is a human right? What is the justification
for human rights? In what way should they be enforced, if at all?
The first thing that must be done if any of the above questions are to be answered is to define a human right. Carl Wellman states in The Proliferation of Human Rights that human rights are 'the fundamental moral rights each and every individual possesses simply as a human being' (13). In his discussion of human rights in Human Rights and Human Diversity, A.J.M. Milne begins by stating 'Human rights must necessarily be universal moral rights' (124). These two definitions agree that human rights have a moral basis, not a social or legal one, and that they must apply universally. These two aspects of human rights imply that there must exist a universal human morality from which these rights stem.
Another way one might go about defining human rights is to look toward the 30 articles of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. The rights contained in this document vary from the so-called natural rights in Article 2: 'Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person' to the right to a democratic government of Article 21 and the right to paid holidays in Article 24. While many of the rights stated in this document would be easy to justify as fitting into a universal morality (providing, of course, that one exists), many of the later ones would be harder to make a case for. Milne also has objections to using the UN Declaration as a standard for human rights: 'the ideal standard consists of rights which embody the values and institutions of liberal-democratic industrial society...to them (the nations that make up the 'Third World') many of the rights set forth in the Declaration...are simply irrelevant' (2-3). These rights set forth by the United Nations fail to meet the criteria established above: they are neither universal nor a part of the common morality.
If we take the definition of human rights promoted by Milne and Wellman to be the standard, how might such human rights be justified? Take the right to life for instance, the premier human right, so to speak, something that nearly everyone can agree is a human right, though there are variances in the way this right is perceived. One way to justify this right is to say that wanton killing is morally condemned universally, and that not to kill another human being unnecessarily is a part of the common morality. However, it is impossible to deny that at many points in history, wanton killing has not only been common, but even an accepted practice of some societies. Genocide is an example that springs to mind, as is the practice of human sacrifice. When one is speaking of morality, it is very hard to speak in objective terms, having been so conditioned to one's culture. However, the fact that such practices have been condoned by many different societies from many different traditions throughout human history may point to the fact that a universal morality does not exist, which makes it very difficult to justify human rights.
When it comes to human rights, it appears as if there are no easy answers. We often run into trouble merely trying to define and justify human rights, and the question of their enforcement simply creates more questions and problems. However, no one would deny the seriousness of the issue when large-scale human rights violations are occuring constantly around the world, and if history is any indicator, will continue to occur.