Tssues that prevent universal agreement on what constitutes human rights

I.                   Introduction

Chapter 4 of An Introduction to Global Studies begins by exploring the origins of human rights. This is followed by a discussion of how the protection of human rights became an obligation of nation-states. Next, the chapter focuses on various documents that underpin the human rights movement as well as the various debates that surround the conceptualization and implementation of human rights protections. The chapter then moves on to provide an overview of human rights monitoring and enforcement. Finally, the chapter concludes with a brief introduction to emerging human rights issues. Having read the material for this week, you should be able to assess the following questions and issue areas:


What are human rights and from where do they originate?

What issues prevent universal agreement on what constitutes human rights?

Are human rights culturally specific or universal?

How are human rights monitored and how are human rights treaties enforced?


II. Where do Human Rights come From?

The chapter’s discussion of the origins of modern Human Rights is divided into three sections: Schools of Thought about the Origins of Human Rights, Historical Background and Human Rights in the Modern Era.

The two schools of thought about the origins of human rights are natural law and positivism.  According to the former, human rights are inherent in all individuals; that is, all humans are born with certain rights.  According to the latter, on the other hand, human rights exist because states consent to them. (p. 88-89 of An Introduction to Global Studies)

A number of key documents and events have set the ground work for modern human rights.  These are the Magna Carta (1215), the writ of habeus corpus and the French Revolution of 1789.

In the modern era, the most important documents on human rights have emerged within deliberations of the League of Nations and, more significantly, its successor the United Nations.  The UN Charter alludes to its aspirations to internationalize human rights. (p. 93 of An Introduction to Global Studies)  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone in these terms. (p. 95-97 of   An Introduction to Global Studies)  You may visit the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for more details about the UN’s efforts to promote human rights.


III.             The Debate over Rights

A.                Negative and Positive Rights

The Cold War period (1945-1991) complicated both the interpretation and implementation of human rights.  One debate centered on the relative weight of negative and positive rights.  The latter includes those rights which no individual or state can take away, such as the right to free speech, freedom of religion, etc.  In the United States these are often understood as Civil Rights and Liberties.  Positive rights, on the other hand, are rights which states are supposed to promote, such as education, health care, etc. (p. 102 of  An Introduction to Global Studies)

B.                 Cultural Relativists vs. Universalists

One of the things you will notice is that modern conceptions of human rights have largely originated in the west.  This raises questions about whether notions of human rights are western-centric, and whether western practices of promoting human rights around the world are in fact exercises in cultural imperialism.

One development which signifies the growing acceptance of the universalist position is the increasing credibility of international tribunals to try those accused of crimes against humanity.  These include the International Criminal Court.


IV.             In Focus: What is Torture?

The text focuses on the issue of torture to discuss the debates surrounding human rights.  Part of the issue is what constitutes “torture”, and whether there can be a global agreement on this.  The latter became particularly controversial in the context of the war on terror during the Bush administration. The Geneva Accords, derived for the UDHR, offer a set of guidelines.

Part of the issue, also, centers on the rights of prisoners of war.  The Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, adopted on August 12, 1949, and entered into force on October 21, 1950, offer guidelines.

The next lecture will look at how human rights are monitored and enforced, and the areas of emerging human rights.


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