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Sustainability, Spirit & Community

Human Rights

Human rights refers to legal and ethical standards of behavior that have acquired, within national and international political and legal systems, a status of expected compliance due to their essential importance in achieving justice within that society. The term "human rights" and its equivalents in other languages usually refer to the norms incorporated into international human rights instruments. These norms are based on the legal and political traditions of United Nations member states and concern what is essential to human survival (e.g., right to life, right to an adequate standard of living, prohibition of genocide), to integrity and autonomy of the person (e.g., freedom from torture and other mistreatment, freedom of expression, freedom of movement) and to fulfillment of the human potential in society (e.g., right to self-determination, right to education, right to participation in cultural and political life). These rights have been defined primarily in the International Bill of Rights, which consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the two International Covenants of 1966, other human rights treaties, and declarations of the United Nations and regional organizations.

In the Western political tradition, human rights are rights which are held to be "inalienable" and to belong to all humans. They are necessary for freedom and the maintenance of a "reasonable" quality of life. These human rights are a series of moral and legal rights that are due to each human being. The basis of this political tradition, perhaps best exemplified in the United States Constitution (1783) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1793)) is the equality of opportunity between individuals.

If a right is inalienable, that means it cannot be bestowed, granted, limited, bartered away, or sold away (e.g., one cannot sell oneself into slavery). The question of which rights are inalienable and which are not (or whether any rights are inalienable rather than granted or bestowed) is an ancient and ongoing controversy. Rights may also be non-derogable (not limited in times of national emergency)—these often include the right to life, the right to be prosecuted only according to the laws that are in existence at the time of the offence, the right to be free from slavery, and the right to be free from torture.

The French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen established a number of civil rights contrasting starkingly with the society of the ancien régime monarchy.

__Universal Declaration of Human Rights__

In 1948, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration introduced the notion in the public realm that certain rights are universal, inalienable, and inherent to the well being of an individual. Specifically, the Declaration limits the behavior of the state, which now has duties to the citizen (rights-duty duality). The roots of this notion can be drawn as far back as the Ancients (the role of the individual in the state) but the idea of civil and political rights stems from liberal freedoms advocated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. The concepts of economic, social and cultural Rights can be traced back to Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right.

The main content of the Declaration was later made into two legally binding Covenants: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (opened for signature 1966, entered into force March 23, 1976) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (opened for signature 1966, entered into force January 3, 1976)

Other human rights conventions of note include: Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (entry into force: 1951), Convention against Torture (entry into force: 1984), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (entry into force: 1969), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (entry into force: 1981), Convention on the Rights of the Child (entry into force: 1989) and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (entry into force: 2002).

__Origins of rights__

Numerous theoretical approaches have been advanced to explain how human rights become part of social expectations. The more deterministic theories relate to evolutionary biology and Natural Law. The biological theory considers the comparative reproductive advantage of human social behavior based on Empathy and altruism in the context of natural selection. Natural law theories base human rights on the “natural� moral order based on religious precepts or assumed common understandings of justice or the belief that moral behavior is a set of objectively valid prescriptions formulated or discovered by human reason or intellect. In this view, moral behavior is commanded or required by God, Reason or the natural order. Other theories hold that human rights codify moral behavior, which is a human, social product developed by a process of biological and social evolution (associated with Hume) or as a sociological pattern of rule setting (as in the sociological theory of law and the work of Weber). This approach includes the contractarian notion that individuals in a society accept rules from legitimate authority in exchange for security and economic advantage (as in Rawls). In legend, literature, religion and political thought, justice, and eventually the concept of human rights became socially constructed over time into complex webs of social interaction striving toward a social order in which human beings are treated fairly. The best-known histories of the human rights movement tend to begin with the ancient religions and societies and show the evolution of concepts and institutions of human rights across civilizations.

Other theories are based on human agency, positing such constructs for agreement to rules on the utilitarian principles, or Consequentialism or Social Ethics mediated by public reasoning. Social ethics uses a social evolution model based on human needs and struggle that incorporates an analysis of the norm-creating process, which is a form of public reasoning. It does not reject concepts of justice and dignity, which usually denote a natural law perspective, but treats them as social constructs that are contextualized in time and space. These and other values become norms through the constitutive process of authoritative decision-making. Such norms may take the form of law through a particular form of authoritative decision making of institutions associated with a legal system. It is the process of public reasoning through human rights norm-creating that progressively weeds out the culturally-bound behaviors that are inconsistent with contemporary human rights. In this sense, culturally particular norms adapt to evolving human rights standards as defined in national constitutions and international human rights instruments of the United Nations and regional organizations.

Human rights are typically divided into two categories: __Negative human rights__ (rights to be free from) and positive human rights(rights to), although other categorisations exist. Negative human rights, which follow mainly from the Anglo-American legal tradition, denote actions that a government should not take. These are codified in the United States Bill of Rights, the English Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and include freedoms of speech, religion and assembly.

__Positive human rights__ follow mainly from the Rousseauian Continental European legal tradition, and rights that the state is obligated to protect and provide. Examples of such rights (not all are universally agreed upon) include: the rights to education, to a livelihood, and legal equality. Positive rights have been codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in many 20th-century constitutions. The origin of modern positive rights in international law may be traced to the creation of the International Labour Organization in 1919 as a Western response to the socialist ideology of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

A categorisation offered by Karel Vasak is the three generations of human rights: first-generation civil and political rights (right to life and political participation), second-generation economic, social and cultural rights (right to subsistence) and third-generation solidarity rights (right to peace, right to clean environment). Out of these generations, the third generation is the most debated and lacks both legal and political recognition.

Some theorists discredit these divisions by claiming that rights are interconnected. Arguably, for example, basic education is necessary for the right to political participation.

Aside from the international legal human rights framework, there are several possible sources of rights thinking. One justification stems from natural law. The theory espoused by the US Declaration of Independence and ingrained in Anglo-American legal thought is that rights arise from a divine Creator, and are thus a part of a moral philosophy. Religious societies tend to try to justify human rights through religious arguments. For example, liberal movements within Islam have tried to use the story of Adam in the Qur'an to support human rights in a Muslim context.

__Human Rights Controversies__

There are a number of controversies regarding human rights including:

* Are human rights political, moral or legal entities (or all three at the same time)?
* Is there or should there be a hierarchy of human rights?
* Do human rights impede on state sovereignty? What if the state itself has ratified international conventions?
* Should human rights be used as a context for economic or military intervention? (Often leads to a worsening of the human rights situation in the target country)
* Questions of cultural relativism - e.g. "Political participation is not a part of African culture. Who are you to say that we should have political participation?" These arguments can also be made on religious basis: e.g., "In our religion marriages have always been arranged; why should we not continue this practice?" Some arguments claim that human rights policies are a form of cultural imperialism in which powerful countries dictate which rights they consider most important to less powerful countries. The increasing number of third-world states that are party to international human rights treaties has made these arguments weaker, but they have not disappeared altogether.
* Who should hold the moral duty to uphold rights? For civil and political rights, the answer is the state but it is not quite so clear who should be responsible for promoting economic, social and cultural rights (do we have a global duty?). This debate mirrors debates between communitarianism and cosmopolitanism.
* Which rights should be defined as fundamental human rights? Should all human rights be considered equal?

__Position Papers__

Universal Human Rights ProposalAir Zoom Vomero 14