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A Closer Look at Human Rights

What Rights Are Human Rights?

Many people today use the phrase human rights to refer to civil, cultural, economic and political norms. These are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated – violating one right makes it harder to enjoy other rights.

Rawls advocated a limited list of these rights, since they would be mainly used for leverage in international politics (and not for domestic legal obligations). Some people argue that this limit has been violated.


The idea that everyone has fundamental human rights began to gain traction in the 20th century and human rights treaties reflect this. Yet the issue of human rights does not have easy answers and many controversial questions remain. For example, despite a great deal of debate and even fierce argument, slavery has been abolished, female genital mutilation is no longer considered acceptable, and the death penalty has been widely condemned.

One possible explanation is that human rights are not simply a matter of legal enactment but that they exist independently of and prior to law as moral rights. This view of rights is often known as ‘moral rights theory’ and it has attracted a wide range of supporters. However, critics have pointed out that a moral right can be abused just as a legal right can. For this reason, a moral right cannot be considered inviolable. Rather, they are rights that people have a duty to uphold.


Unlike ordinary political claims that depend on promises or guarantees, human rights are super-claims that people are intrinsically entitled to, regardless of whether governments honour those entitlements. For example, a person’s right to life is independent of any government promise not to kill them.

Human rights are inalienable because they derive from the inherent dignity of all persons. This makes it impossible for a person to voluntarily give up their rights or allow others to take them away from them.

Although Gewirth aimed to provide a logically inescapable justification for human rights, many scholars have sought alternative ways to ground them. Griffin provides one such approach, which is based on the unique value of human agency and autonomy. He suggests that this is not just a metaphysical value but also a practical one: “practicalities” shape human rights by prescribing their boundaries, enlarging them a little to allow safety margins and consulting facts about human nature.


For a human rights holder, the concept of indivisibility means that she or he has a right to her own freedom and well-being. This also means that she or he has a duty to ensure that other people have their rights.

This is a morally grounded view of human rights and, as such, it is opposed to purely political conceptions of them (for challenges to apolitical views see Gilabert 2011, Liao and Etinson 2012, Sangiovanni 2017 and Waldron 2018). The indivisibility of human rights also has practical implications.

The Declaration of Independence claims that everyone is born with ‘natural rights’ based on the fact that they are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ However, most human rights are more specific than this and presuppose contemporary institutions (for example, the right to a fair trial). This means that, in practice, a person’s human rights can conflict with each other.

Interdependence and Interrelatedness

The enjoyment of one human right depends on the enjoyment of many other rights, and no human right can be fully enjoyed without all of them. This principle of interdependence and interrelatedness means that all rights are equally important – there is no hierarchy of human rights. However, some rights are more important than others, and some are more easily violated than others.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers like John Locke began to develop the idea that people had natural rights derived from their own ‘normative agency’. These were rights to life, liberty and property that would guarantee them freedom from tyranny.

A human rights approach considers each person as a ‘rights holder’ and an ‘accountable duty bearer’, which enables them to make legitimate claims against other rights holders, governments and other organisations. It also empowers individuals to organise, mobilise and campaign for the realisation of their rights. This requires a high level of participation by communities, women, minorities, indigenous peoples and other groups.

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