Are Human Rights Really ‘Universal, Inalienable, and Indivisible’?

Human Rights

Where after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home –so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory; the farm, or the office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, and equal dignity, without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have meaning anywhere.

– Eleanor Roosevelt, National Coordinating Committee, Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary

On December 10, the world commemorates Human Rights Day. On this day in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This historic document is regarded as the first major international instrument affirming individual rights. Though this document is not legally binding, its contents have permeated hundreds of international conventions, agreements, and domestic laws from various countries.

Human rights are defined as certain fundamental or natural rights that are inalienable and necessary for the development of human personality.

They can also be considered fundamental rights because they cannot be revoked by the government or legislature. Many scholars argue that human rights are not created by legislation because they are natural rights and that the source of human rights is acceptance of the human person’s worth and dignity. The fundamentals of human rights have been incorporated into the American Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and other significant documents.

Human rights were generally considered to be within the internal sphere of national jurisdiction until the nineteenth century. However, during the twentieth century, international human rights law began to take shape.

Whence did Human Rights come into the picture?

Given the history of humanity, we tend to believe that the term “human rights” is a relatively new concept. The United Nations, on the other hand, dates the origin of human rights to 539 BC. Cyrus the Great’s troops conquered Babylon at that time; Cyrus freed the slaves, declared that everyone had the right to practice their own religion, and established racial equality. Nonetheless, history seems to repeat itself, and slavery was legal in the United States for less than 200 years.

Unfortunately, slavery has not been abolished, and modern forms of slavery continue to exist around the world. Debt bondage, in which a person is forced to work for free to repay a debt, child slavery, forced marriage, domestic servitude, and forced labor, in which victims are forced to work through violence, intimidation, and abuse of vulnerability, are examples of such practices.

Can we therefore still accept Kofi Annan’s assertion from 2000 that we are living in the “Age of Human Rights”? Or do the global atrocities committed in the last few decades, which continue to occur, speak for themselves? Some academics argue that human rights are merely a vehicle for the White Savior Complex.

Others argue that the end of the Cold War marked a turning point in human rights, allowing advocates to push for the implementation of international law and the establishment of global courts

Human Rights as a Universal Principle

According to universal human rights theory, human rights apply to everyone simply because they are human. The most obvious challenge to the universality factor is ‘cultural relativism,’ which holds that universal human rights are neo-imperialistic and culturally hegemonic. While this viewpoint is appealing, the relativist argument contains a crippling self-contradiction: by assuming that the only sources of moral validity are individual cultures, one is barred from making any consistent moral judgments.

Human Rights as Inalienable

Early philosophers and scholars such as Locke, Mason, and Lilburne discussed natural rights in terms of inherentness, natality, and inability to be surrendered, assisting later thinkers in better conceptualizing the core of inalienability by asking who the ‘human’ in human rights is.

Constant debate on this topic has elicited the best and worst in contemporary philosophers. One scholar, for example, observes that in order to be a person with rights, one must contribute to both self and society in an autonomous capacity.

Along these lines, against the backdrop, Hannah Arendt articulated one of the most timeless perspectives on inalienability. Noting refugees’ lack of tangible access to rights as a result of their statelessness, Arendt concluded that the only true right was ‘the right to have rights,’ in the sense that modern rights had become inextricably linked to the emancipated national state.

Given today’s challenges of displacement and statelessness, it appears more helpful to abandon abstract arguments about inalienability and recognize that rights are inextricably linked to statehood and citizenship in the international human rights system. According to Arendt, “inalienability has shown to be unenforceable.”

Human Rights as Indivisible

In terms of indivisibility, this concept holds that the simultaneous execution of all rights is required for the human rights system to work properly. Beyond talks of violations, indivisibility refers to the premise that no human right can be completely implemented or realized unless all other rights are fully realized. Those who support indivisibility argue that without a commitment to indivisibility, human rights enforcement is arbitrary and incomplete and that anything less than simultaneous implementation of all human rights may fuel dangerous rights prioritisations by governments (i.e. emphasizing first or second-generation rights while neglecting third generation ones will mean that all rights values suffer).

Does Human rights stand around its definition?

As a result, it is clear that several of the most commonly accepted and basic principles of human rights – universality, inalienability, and indivisibility – are very disputed when examined closely. However, rather than undermining the entire notion of human rights, these criticisms just remind us to constantly revise our assumptions about rights in order to make them more inclusive and tangible to those who remain on the outside, looking in.

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