Philosophy of Human Rights
1. Denis Arnold, “The Human Rights Obligations of Multinational Corporations”
I have had the opportunity to teach a number of courses on the philosophy of human rights. To supplement the Arnold reading, I thought that I would give you some basic background regarding the central philosophical and legal debates over the nature of human rights.
What are human rights?
Human rights are international norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses. Examples of human rights are the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right not to be tortured, and the right to engage in political activity. These rights exist in morality and in law at the national and international levels. They are addressed primarily to governments, requiring compliance and enforcement. The main sources of the contemporary conception of human rights are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the many human rights documents and treaties that followed in international organizations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, and the African Union. The philosophy of human rights addresses questions about the existence, content, nature, universality, justification, and legal status of human rights. The strong claims made on behalf of human rights (for example, that they are universal, or that they exist independently of legal enactment as justified moral norms) frequently provoke skeptical doubts and countering philosophical defences. Reflection on these doubts and the responses that can be made to them has become a sub-field of political and legal philosophy.
The General Idea of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) sets out a list of over two dozen specific human rights that countries should respect and protect. These specific rights can be divided into six or more families: security rights that protect people against crimes such as murder, massacre, torture, and rape; due process rights that protect against abuses of the legal system such as imprisonment without trial, secret trials, and excessive punishments; liberty rights that protect freedoms in areas such as belief, expression, association, assembly, and movement; political rights that protect the liberty to participate in politics through actions such as communicating, assembling, protesting, voting, and serving in public office; equality rights that guarantee equal citizenship, equality before the law, and nondiscrimination; and social (or “welfare”) rights that require provision of education to all children and protections against severe poverty and starvation. Another family that might be included is group rights. The Universal Declaration does not include group rights, but subsequent treaties do. Group rights include protections of ethnic groups against genocide and the ownership by countries of their national territories and resources (see Anaya 2004, Baker 2004, Henrard 2000, Kymlicka 1989, and Nickel 2006). Human rights are political norms dealing mainly with how people should be treated by their governments and institutions. They are not ordinary moral norms applying mainly to interpersonal conduct (such as prohibitions of lying and violence). As Thomas Pogge puts it, “to engage human rights, conduct must be in some sense official” (Pogge 2000, p. 47). But we must be careful here since some rights, such as rights against racial and sexual discrimination are primarily concerned to regulate private behavior (Okin 1998). Still, governments are directed in two ways by rights against discrimination. They forbid governments to discriminate in their actions and policies, and they impose duties on governments to prohibit and discourage both private and public forms of discrimination. Second, human rights exist as moral and/or legal rights. A human right can exist as (1) a...
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