WHAT ARE HUMAN RIGHTS?
Human rights are your rights. These are articulated in a series of human rights conventions, and their purpose is to protect the individual against undue interference from government or other agents.
To fully understand the ideas underpinning human rights, we must turn back to the 1700s and the Enlightenment Era. Until then, the citizens had no rights; they were the subjects of the King and he could rule as he pleased.
As humanity matured, however, it dawned on us that this was an unfortunate state of affairs and that we could do better. Therefore, the French and American revolutions heralded a new order. Then on, new ruling principles were established, which held that every individual was born free and equal with a right to pursue his happiness. Furthermore, the state no longer wielded any power of its own. From being all-powerful, the state was whittled to a mere governing body of civil servants with a twofold purpose: (1) to secure the maximum amount of liberty for each and every person, and (2) to ensure a balance of rights and duties, so that the wheels of society operated optimally.
The function of government is as simple as that—and the purpose of human rights law is to ensure that theory and practice are one and the same. Today, it is recognised as the supreme law of the land and to summarise, this is the principle behind the rule of law:
To begin with, the individual is the alpha and omega: We are all born free and equal; we all have the same inherent right to pursue our happiness as we deem fit, and we all have the same right to self-determination over our lives and our property—be it our body, our thoughts, or our possessions.
This is the fundamental premise from which everything ensues. However, individuals do not always behave decently towards their fellowmen; some people infringe on the right of others to self-determination over body, thoughts, or possessions (by stealing, raping, murdering, etc.) and we have therefore created the State, with its monopoly of force, as an arrangement to safeguard individual rights and to ensure the optimal function of the social machinery.
This is the social contract. The state apparatus, however, can never be better than allowed for by the quality of the collective consciousness, and as mankind is yet immature, consisting of individuals who all too often pursue self-interest and public interest as opposing variables, the state apparatus, as a result of us living in a class-divided society, transforms into a playground for special interests seeking to advance short-sighted agendas rather than the public interest.
This is the fundamental problem facing humanity. To ensure a balance of power, therefore, we have a separation of powers, and with an independent press to keep an eye on everything, we have the groundwork to ensure that no single group becomes powerful enough to assume control of the state apparatus.
Still, there remains a possibility that these safety measures are not enough. Therefore, to ensure that the state apparatus does not become a tool for the ruling class’ oppression of the majority, we have established a legal framework where human rights law reigns supreme.
This legal framework is available to all. The purpose is to protect the inherent dignity of the individual by ensuring that the State does not unnecessarily and overarchingly interfere in our everyday lives; the human rights conventions, therefore, establish certain criteria that all laws must comply with and to ensure an effective remedy if we have complaints about undue restrictions.
Note: This is just a concise summary. If you want to learn more about human rights and the thinking behind it, please read chapters 1 and 2 of the book “To End a War”, or check out “Human Rising“, our 2018 report.