The Fuzziness of Human Rights

On the anniversary of its legal birth, the concept is losing its interpretive luster.

The modern human rights movement traces its lineage to the passage
of the non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United
Nations in 1948. The declaration was spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt
in response to the horrors of World War II. And, in the sixty years
since, the cry of “human rights” has become a catch-all phrase for
everything that is good. Human rights activists are always the good
gals and guys and the human rights abusers are always dastardly.
However, a sustained look shows that this concept is in crisis. If we
are not careful, the term “human rights” will become like the word
“democracy” — used by good and evil alike to justify whatever
activity they wish to pursue.

“Rights” language dominates social discourse today. Yet, cries of
“give me my rights” often rob movements of the power to unite people in
common purpose. Power to gain some control along with one’s peers in
one’s village, or neighborhood, or workplace is not the same as simply
securing one’s individual rights. Contemporary liberal theory and
cultural practice has devalued the role of our sociality and our
community in favor of an emphasis on individual rights.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, part of
Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, is sponsoring a semester-long
“Faith in Human Rights” project, consisting of courses, talks, art, and
films. The project is dedicated to encouraging religious traditions to
play a greater cooperative role in preventing human rights abuses. To
the extent that the school’s Faith in Human Rights project clarifies
what human rights truly are and how they fit into activity to end
injustice, this is a wonderful exercise. To the extent that the project
mushes all that is good and just into the “rights” framework, it is not
helpful. For instance, the project’s film series covers a range of
topics, including stories of the West Oakland recycling community, the
effects of war on children in Northern Uganda, and a comparison of
Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution to current struggles of ethnic
Guatemalan peasants. All these are important and laudable struggles to
reduce suffering, but what really binds them? Is it the rubric of
“human rights?” I am not so sure. To their credit, most of the films in
the series seem to emphasize communal activity. But as such, these
struggles do not fit into the individualism of human rights. Likewise,
the project includes an art exhibition that features embroidered and
appliquéd fabric pictures created by women of art cooperatives
located in Pamplona Alta, a shantytown situated on the outskirts of
Lima, Peru. Again, while this sounds like a very cool project and
exhibit, why does this come under the umbrella of human rights?

For many reasons, the human rights approach is an imprecise template
to place over many cases of injustice. For one thing, the question of
what to do with competing rights has yet to be fleshed out. Reading the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, numerous possible conflicts
emerge between individuals claiming certain rights. How are they to be
resolved? For example, how do we square the human rights protection of
property rights with the advocacy of labor rights in the document? We
know that property rights nearly always win in our country and most
others. Why is that?

Human rights discourse also has proven to be especially ineffective
when used to confront economic hardship. Kenneth Roth, the executive
director of Human Rights Watch, notes that human rights arguments are
of limited efficacy when “distributive justice” is the goal, and “in
the amorphous realm of costs and benefits.” However, most struggles of
the less fortunate take place in exactly this realm. Struggles for
justice, in the main, are about substantive equality. What human rights
language claims to offer is procedural equality. They are not the same.
Where do human rights come from and who should enforce them? Are human
rights based on a common morality or do they represent the common
morality? How do individual human rights help us face common

Finally, an emphasis on “rights” in a legal sense downplays the
innate morality of human dignity. Contemporary society has been under
the sway of a morality of the market, which privileges money-making and
greed. In his work “The Moral Imperative of the Market,” Frederick
Hayek, the hero of Wall Street, wrote that “people must be willing to
submit to the discipline constituted by commercial morals.” Our nation
and world have been operating in submission to this standard of
legality and morality for far too long, and the results can be seen in
our deepening social and economic crisis. Human rights framing offers
little in rebuttal to this obscene formulation.

The next talk in the GTU lecture series could be especially helpful
in thinking about the question of where to find justice and where to
find rights. Do we find the answers in the makeup of our species or in
the laws we have passed? Catholic feminist theologian and Notre Dame
professor Jean Porter, who will speak on March 12, is working hard to
construct a basis in “natural law,” or morality, for legal rights.
Natural law is that set of ethics and morals that most global
civilizations have clung to since the dawn of our species. Human rights
could be seen as natural law that influences legal rights. Porter’s
work attempts to provide a basis upon which to make common decisions
about what rules, responsibilities, and entitlements should be
available to all. Implicit in the natural law discussion is that legal
rights do not fall from the sky nor are they contained in the human
genome; they are the product of the political forces at the time. Also
understood is that this natural law can provide a common basis for
morality, something sorely lacking today.


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