The Contest for Human Rights

By unpacking some of the key ideas within the human rights debate, this blog post argues that the debates and discussions surrounding human rights are essential for its promotion.

The notion of human rights is heavily contested and politicized. After the Second World War when the human rights debate took center stage there were noticeable differences in conceptions of human rights between developed and developing States as well as ideological differences between capitalist system and socialist systems. Although the world has changed since then, how State and non-State actors conceptualize human rights has continually been disputed.

Key battles

States are the main actors responsible for promoting and safeguarding human rights but they are also the ones whom primarily break these obligations. A primary tension here is that whilst States are charged with upholding basic civil and political rights, as sovereigns they can exercise discretion and derogate from responsibilities when a security threat arises. Indeed, whilst the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a central document which, as its name suggests, codifies civil and political rights it also makes it abundantly clear that state sovereignty must be respected.

In recent years, we have seen two main examples of this tension. First, the erosion of the previously espoused human rights norm the responsibility to protect (R2P). Second, the construction of migration as a security threat. There are greater numbers of refugees fleeing today, than during any other time in human history. Many of them face atrocious levels of human rights abuses which force them to leave their home countries. To add insult to injury, as the case of Australia’s offshore centers has revealed, respect for human rights during the refugee migration processes is absent even in the case of advanced democracies.

However, the primacy of state sovereignty and the capacity for a state to protect itself from security threats facilitates conditions where human rights obligations can simply be ignored. At the same time, as more complex threats have begun to emerge, states have felt a greater commitment to creating policies that protect their citizens even if these measures have limited tangible results.

Ideological differences have also caused considerable divisions in the way that States promote human rights. One of the more prominent debates has been that of collective rights vs. individual rights. To developed Western States, human rights are inherently individual rights. Collective rights are those which cannot be wielded by an individual but rather are exercised only by groups with the most prime example being the right to self-governance by indigenous peoples.

To some extent, both sides recognize that the application of human rights is always affected by factors such as economic development, historical traditions and cultural backgrounds. Accordingly, advocates for collective rights hold that in certain contexts it is more beneficial to apply human rights to groups rather than to individuals. This debate has been waged particularly in post-colonial societies whom tend to place greater value on collective rights such as the right to development rather than what they may see as being more Western oriented individualistic rights.

Lastly, and closely linked to these debate is the issue of the types of rights that should be promoted. Broadly speaking the two sides within this debate are civil and political rights versus economic, social, and cultural rights. As this post has already outlined, human rights and how they are applied is an inherently political and ideological process. Consequently, States may resist complying with international standards if they view them to be contradictory with local cultural or social values. One outcome of this is that some of the worst violators, such as Saudi Arabia, who have not even agreed to join central human rights agreements can hold posts on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Spreading the debate

Although it would seem at first glance that these debates are more philosophical, as the relevant examples have demonstrated, each one has both a practical and lasting effect on how human rights are promoted. Resultantly, their continued irresolution directly impacts upon people. It is most likely that there will never be any declared winners of these debates. However, perhaps resolution is not their main purpose. Instead at the very least, these kinds of debates act as a vehicle to spread human rights. Through this process of debate and discussion it is evident that these ideas have penetrated regions in the world where not too long ago their utterance would have been inconceivable. This is a most positive development which will most likely continue.