Today we remember the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in honor of that historic achievement, it’s a good opportunity to reflect the importance of Human Rights in our modern society. If only it serves us as a reminder of their existence and inalienability.
Of course Human Rights existed before the Declaration; it’s primary contribution was to come to some sort of agreement about people’s rights that would be applicable to the entire world (or to members of the United Nations). Up until then, various philosophers had proposed several different versions of what constituted escential and unalienable rights, with varying degrees of acceptability. Codifying them into one text and making them extensive and applicable to all equally is certainly a noble goal and the signers of the document should be applauded.
However, it shows a fundamental flaw with the concept of Human Rights, at least how they are understood and interpreted. Whether you call them Civil Rights, Constitutional Rights, or Individual Rights, the core concept of Human Rights is that they are escential to the human condition and unalienable. They are the core of our functioning society, protecting us from the usury of less scrupulous fellow humans. Before 1948, lots of countries had enshrined Human Rights in their Constitutions and Fundamental Charters (some can even claim recognition of at least some of the rights as far back as the Magna Carta). The problem with all these efforts is that they are political instruments, and subject to the government -the institution that many rights are specifically designed to protect you from.
In a way, it’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
For example, American’s Constitutional Rights. The right to life, liberty and the persuit of hapiness are the most basic rights that all other Charters acknowledge, if not as succinctly. They are guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States to all American citizens. That’s great. Except that the Constitution is amendable. In fact, the “Bill of Rights” which instituted most of the rights that we later understood as Human Rights in the US, is actually an amendment to the Constitution. The right to free speech is the first amendment to the Constitution, which means free speech was not included in the original Constitution and had to be added. It also means -as the 21 st Amendment demonstrates– the right can be erased through legal and/or democratic means. Being a legal instrument does not make Human Rights unalienable.
If we take a look at the Declaration’s history, we’ll see that it’s actually an agreement between politicians; and did not come into being as a response to observable or objective rights that humans had. It was a political agreement, much like any other law, and may be abided by or not, and may even be amended. In fact, there is significant controversy recently regarding the Western-centric concepts in the Declaration, and many of it’s precepts are being challenged by stricter applications of Sharia Law. If our rights are “given” to us by a Charter, then he who controls the Charter decides what rights we have. We wouldn’t have Human Rights, but “Rights that our political elite decide are appropriate for us.”
This is a repeated problem among instruments that are collectively created to protect Human Rights: they persue a very noble goal, and to a large extent achieve it. That shouldn’t be ignored. However, if we consider that the concept of Human Rights are inherent and unalienable to each person then any effort to establish rights through collective means will imply that those collective means can recind the rights to the person.
Strangely, a philosophy or ideology that didn’t directly address the issue of Human Rights might have something of an answer to this issue: Ayn Rand. Unlike most other idealists (so academic philosphers don’t turn away in disgust), Rand’s epistemiology and ethics are derived from the individual, and the idea that a person’s rights exist inherently with the person -not through the sanction of a government, law or charter. Life, in her view, is an inherent property of existence for a human being, consequently it’s an inherent right of a human being. With reason as a fundamental trait of human beings, it’s necessary to have freedom of thought and action to retain your humanity. We need a purpose in our life in order to persist in it; and that purpose is happiness.
The central idea is that our basic, inalienable rights can be derived from our individual condition as human beings, regardless of whether a law exists to protect them or not. The Charter does not “give” you your Human Rights; your rights already exist because you are a Human Being. The Universal Declaration simply declares them to the Universe so that everyone knows what they are, even though they are evident through inductive and deductive reasoning from your fundamental traits as a human being.
Of course this concept of Human Rights probably wouldn’t be very popular among politicans, especially those inclined to “modify” our Human Rights to their political agenda. While there certainly is a lot of debate about what should and shouldn’t be a human right -which is still a legitimate discussion- it’s still important to remember where our rights come from, and who they serve.