WHAT ARE HUMAN RIGHTS?
Human rights are your rights. These rights 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 thinking behind human rights, we must go 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 pretty much rule as he pleased.
As humanity matured, however, we found that this was a rather sorry state of affairs and that we could do better. Therefore, with the French and American revolutions, a new world order saw the light of day. From then on, certain ruling principles were established and the idea was that every individual was born free, of equal worth, and with a right to pursue his happiness. Furthermore, the state apparatus no longer had any power of its own. From being all-powerful, it was reduced to being a mere governing body consisting of civil servants whose purpose was twofold: (1) to secure the maximum amount of liberty to each and every person, and (2) to ensure a balancing 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 see to it that theory and practice is one and the same. Today, it is recognized as the supreme law of the land, and to summarize, this is the thinking 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 follows. However, we also know that individuals, unfortunately, do not always behave decently towards their fellowmen and that we sometimes violate the right of others to the same liberties as ours; some people infringe on others' right to self-determination over their body, thoughts, or possessions (by stealing, raping, murdering, etc.) and we have therefore created the State, with its monopoly of force, as a necessary arrangement to safeguard individual rights and see to it that the social machinery functions optimally.
This is the social contract. The state apparatus, however, can never be better than the quality of the collective consciousness allows. And as mankind is a rather immature entity, consisting of individuals who all too often see self-interest and public interest as two opposing variables, the state apparatus, as a result of us living in a class-divided society, has a tendency to become a playground for special interests seeking to advance their own short-sighted agendas rather than the public interest.
This is the fundamental problem facing humanity. To ensure a balance of power, therefore, we have instigated a separation of powers, and with an independent press to keep an eye on everything, we have laid a groundwork that is to ensure that no single group becomes powerful enough to take control of the state apparatus.
Still, there remains a chance that certain special interests can become so powerful that these safety measures aren’t enough. And to further limit the possibility that the state apparatus becomes a tool for the ruling class’ oppression of the majority, we have established a legal framework in which human rights law rules supreme.
This legal framework is available to all people. The purpose of human rights law is to protect the inherent dignity of the individual by ensuring that the State doesn’t unnecessarily and overbroadly interfere in our everyday lives; it therefore establishes certain criteria that all laws must comply with, and it ensures us an effective remedy if we have complaints about undue restrictions.
Note: This is just a short 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.