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What are human rights?

The haunting image of a stunned and bloodied Omran Daqneesh, the 5-year-old boy who was pulled from the rubble after another round of deadly bombings in the Syrian civil war, bespeaks what in essence our human rights are all about—that by not transcending our sorrows for a young child whose eyes are silently conversing with the gods in the unknown heavens, begging for mercy and compassion in the midst of an evil conflict, we have all become a party to his tragedy and misfortune. Prayers do not end wars. It does not make sense if we lose all hope, but the irreversible reality is that the failure of human institutions to protect innocent lives from the brutalities of war is the failure of the whole of humanity.

The 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights “professes to be a statement of human rights, irrespective of the particular social or political order under which they happen to live.” The collective desire to prevent the atrocities during World War II from ever happening again, notably the Holocaust, is the reason human rights have been formally enshrined in international law. Yet, Syria is just another bitter reminder that the world has not really learned.

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Human rights are moral entitlements that we owe to each other by reason of our humanity. Human rights, as inalienable rights, are universal and paramount. While human rights are the rights of persons, they are actually rights against oppression in the most basic sense. Genocide, torture and other war crimes are all grave violations of human rights. However, it can also be said that plunderers, rapists and murderers are violators of human rights for they, too, take away from the human being what is most precious of all—life.

The inspiration for the discourse on human rights is the concept of natural rights. The philosopher John Locke believed that men and women have the right to life, liberty and property that the state ought to protect. Set against the background of the abuses of monarchies, the concept of natural rights countered the divine rights of kings. In modern times, the culture of human rights challenged totalitarian regimes and provided political legitimacy to emerging democratic alternatives.

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Following the thought of Isaiah Berlin, human freedom can be distinguished as “positive” and “negative.” Seen from its positive connotation, Amartya Sen tells us that human freedom refers to the capacity of the person to realize to the fullest extent “what he or she is able to do and become.” Seen from its negative perspective, human freedom is the right against any form of unjust interference. Rights, in this regard, have intrinsic and instrumental values. The right to free speech, for instance, is not only vital so that the human being is able to express his or her reasoned judgments; it is also crucial in the protection of the person’s other rights.

Human rights as legal rights require the basic structure of society to enforce the same on the basis of the rule of law. Due process, for instance, is meant to prevent those who are in positions of authority to abuse their power.

As a fundamental procedural requirement, it protects persons against any form of discrimination with regard to race, religion, or economic status. According to Oxford professor L.J. Macfarlane, “the right to a fair trial is not a right necessarily limited to those persons who are on trial at any particular point in time, but is a positive expression of the liberty right of all men not to be subject at any time to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment or punishment.”

An important critique against the concept of human rights is that these rights are simply liberal impositions from the West, and that such misunderstand, for instance, the communitarian nature of our society. The Enlightenment, being that period in which human reason escaped from the influence of man’s blind obedience to the authority of religious faith, is the impetus for understanding human rights as civil and political rights. But the Enlightenment is solely grounded in man’s faith in his sovereign will, which is imperfect, and has disregarded the role of the situated identities of people as defined by culture, tradition and religion.

The concept of human rights is egalitarian. “Each person,” John Rawls writes, “possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” This inviolability is rooted in the claim that every individual has dignity and moral worth, a being endowed with the capacity for reason and conscience. Human beings are not things. To deprive individuals of their basic rights is a grave violation of justice. While it is in our deepest interest to achieve the common good, it is also our collective responsibility to respect, not only the dignity, but also the equal dignity, of persons.

Christopher Ryan Maboloc, assistant professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University, holds master’s degrees in philosophy from Ateneo de Manila University and in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.

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TAGS: human rights, Omran Daqneesh, United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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