What Is Special About Human Rights? [Abstract]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 25.3 (Fall 2011)

Human rights occupy a privileged position within contemporary politics. They are widely taken to constitute perhaps the most fundamental standards for evaluating the conduct of states with respect to persons residing within their borders. They are enshrined in numerous international documents, national constitutions, and treaties; and those that have been incorporated into international law are monitored and enforced by numerous international and regional institutional bodies. Human rights have been invoked to justify popular revolt, secession, large-scale political reform, as well as forms of international action ranging from the imposition of conditions on foreign assistance and loans to economic sanctions (as in South Africa and Burma) and military intervention (as in Kosovo and East Timor). Michael Ignatieff has gone so far as to claim that human rights have become "the major article of faith of a secular culture that fears it believes in nothing else," and one might add that they are articles of faith of many non-secular cultures, too.

Yet despite the widespread influence of human rights discourse, it remains unclear precisely what human rights are. The problem is not simply that there is a lack of clarity about the content and grounds of human rights claims—what particular human rights there are, and why we have the particular human rights we do. Rather, it is that the very idea or concept of a human right remains obscure. It is far from obvious, in other words, what we are even saying when we say that there is a "human right" to education and health, for example, or a "human right" not to be tortured or made to engage in forced labor.

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