Human Rights and Wrongs – When Human Rights Conflict

To start off with, if any of you are unfamiliar with the exact definition of ‘Human Rights’, that’s fine, they are hard to define, click here http://bit.ly/bELI7l and look at the very concise definition provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

So, Human Rights are a bit of paradox. They can seem unrealistic, out-dated or unnecessary. Worse still, some can appear to negate others, reduce their effectiveness or seem out of place.

For example, we all have a right to an education, but do you think if I went to the European Court of Human Rights (undeniably the most effective mechanism to date for the enforcement of human rights, internationally) and demanded that I be given the education of my choice, for free, they would uphold my rights? I don’t think so.

Or another example, we have an inalienable right to property but then we all have a right to the environment, which frequently infringes on someone’s right to own a bit of land and do what they want with it. Go figure.

But we live in a world where we accept that human rights are important and universal and innate… allow me, as I’m sure you will, to briefly digress – I generally believe we do, no nation state is entirely innocent from human rights abuses but almost all of them place the furthering of human rights objectives as part of their foreign policy aims, they are just lying and badly. Plus there are far too many bad people on the planet that operate as non state actors perpetrating human rights abuses (including corporations). So, the point I’m trying to get across is that inevitably we’re going to be in a position where we have to pick sides. We can’t have them all, human rights by their nature as absolute and inalienable,  if they clash with each other both will come out weaker or one will win hands down.

So, what if we do have to decide which rights are most important? I’m not suggesting we rank them (although the obsessive organiser in me wants nothing more than to list them 1,2,3 ad infinitum) but I am suggesting we take a moment to recognise that, whether we like it or not, human rights are not equal.

What does it matter if we have a right to privacy if the state can condemn us to death at will? Who cares about the right to an education if we are deprived of freedom? This sort of exercise is a little extreme but I find it useful to put things in perspective. It is impossible to deny that some rights are essentially more important than others. If only because they provide a basis from which to exercise our other rights. We exercise our right to marry and found a family because we are, just by virtue of being alive, intrinsically, biologically free. There’s nothing the state can do about it, it’s in our nature and sooner or later it’s going to come out.

So, should we be streamlining rights? Or how about only enforcing the ones that matter the most and overlooking infringement of the ‘less important’?

No. Quite simply, establishing a precedent that some rights are to be enforced and some rights are not to be enforced undermines them all. They are interdependent and indivisible.

What we should be doing is searching for something deeper. What do rights have in common? Are they the rights of the individual, such as privacy? Are they group rights like that of the environment? Can we identify something more base about certain rights? As I mentioned earlier, some rights are exercised by the existence of a predecessor. Can we decide therefore that some rights are the foundations of others?

Human Rights flow chart
Human Rights flow chart
Human Rights flow chart

I’ve chosen to drop this image into the mix, I made it (obviously, considering how basic it is) in a few minutes on Word to describe what I mean. It isn’t exhaustive, it doesn’t include all the rights by a long shot and it’s very primitive but I think it does the trick. To elaborate we have the right not to be enslaved and tortured because we are, as human beings, inherently dignified. We can express how we think and feel, and we are entitled to maintain a private life that is no business of the state because we are born free. We have the right to make decisions about our bodies and the right to preserve our own life and expect it to be respected because we have an inalienable right to remain living and breathing and no one is allowed to take that away from us.

This isn’t ranking rights, it’s acknowledging that some are more primal than others and without them the rights that stem from them are meaningless. It’s not quite saying that they are more important, it’s just recognising that without them, we couldn’t expect or demand more specific rights.  We don’t have to give up the interdependence and indivisibility of rights to acknowledge that some come before, literally and figuratively, others.

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