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What Is Special About Human Rights?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 September 2011


Human rights occupy a privileged position within contemporary politics. They are widely taken to constitute perhaps the most fundamental standards for evaluating the conduct of states with respect to persons residing within their borders. They are enshrined in numerous international documents, national constitutions, and treaties; and those that have been incorporated into international law are monitored and enforced by numerous international and regional institutional bodies. Human rights have been invoked to justify popular revolt, secession, large-scale political reform, as well as forms of international action ranging from the imposition of conditions on foreign assistance and loans to economic sanctions (as in South Africa and Burma) and military intervention (as in Kosovo and East Timor). Michael Ignatieff has gone so far as to claim that human rights have become “the major article of faith of a secular culture that fears it believes in nothing else,” and one might add that they are articles of faith of many non-secular cultures, too.

Review Essay
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2011

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1 Ignatieff, Michael, “Human Rights: The Midlife Crisis,” New York Review of Books 46 (May 20, 1999), p. 58Google Scholar.

2 For a clear analysis of the concept of rights, see Wenar, Leif, “The Nature of Rights,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 33, no. 3 (July 2005), pp. 223–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 As emphasized in Feinberg, Joel, “The Nature and Value of Rights,” Journal of Value Inquiry 4 (1970), pp. 243–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 To deny that human rights are legal rights is not to deny that there are legal human rights—that is, genuine human rights that have been institutionalized within international law, and that such rights are extremely important. But the concept of a human right is not that of a legal right. Indeed, the claim that there is a human right to some object—education, freedom from torture or racial discrimination, and so on—does not even entail that there should be a legal right to it. In some contexts it may be counterproductive to the fulfillment of some human rights that legal rights be created to protect them.

5 He writes elsewhere that the term “human right” is “nearly criterionless.” James Griffin, On Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 13.

6 See also the discussion in Buchanan, Allen, “The Egalitarianism of Human Rights,” Ethics 120 (2010), pp. 679710CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Griffin, James, “Human Rights: Questions of Aim and Approach,” Ethics 120 (2010), pp. 741–60, at p. 747. See also Griffin, p. 53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 See, e.g., Burke, Roland, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; and Lauren, Paul Gordon, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

9 Griffin, “Human Rights: Questions of Aim and Approach,” p. 753.

10 On this point, see Pogge, Thomas, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), pp. 6364Google Scholar.

11 See also Beitz, pp. 65–66; and Tasioulas, John, “Taking Rights Out of Human Rights,” Ethics 120 (2010), pp. 647–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Among the most important treaties are: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (both adopted in 1966); the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990). There have also been a number of important binding regional treaties adopted in Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

13 See James Nickel, “Human Rights,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for a very useful account of the main human rights instruments and institutions; available at

14 See also Rawls, John, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Joseph Raz, “Human Rights without Foundations,” University of Oxford Faculty of Legal Studies Research Paper Series 14/2007, p. 9; and Sangiovanni, Andrea, “Justice and the Priority of Politics to Morality,” Journal of Political Philosophy 16 (2008), pp. 137–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 See also Tasioulas, John, “Are Human Rights Essentially Triggers for Intervention?Philosophy Compass 4 (2009), pp. 938–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Laura Valentini, “Human Rights: A Freedom-Centered View” (unpublished manuscript).

16 Could Beitz escape this implication by rigidifying “human rights” to the “ir” current practice within the actual world? This seems difficult to reconcile with his acceptance of the fact that the functional role of human rights evolves. He accepts the implication that the concept of a human right has changed as a result of developments in the shared understanding of the aims and purposes of human rights norms.

17 As Beitz puts it, “there is no assumption of a prior or independent layer of fundamental rights whose nature and content can be discovered independently of a consideration of the place of human rights in the international realm and its normative discourse and then used to interpret and criticize international doctrine” (p. 102).

18 See Southwood, Nicholas, “The Authority of Social Norms,” in Brady, Michael, ed., New Waves in Metaethics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 234–48Google Scholar; and Nicholas Southwood, “The Moral/Conventional Distinction,” Mind (forthcoming).

19 Pluralist accounts of human rights have been offered by, e.g., Nussbaum, Martha, “Human Rights and Human Capabilities,” Harvard Human Rights Journal 20 (2007), pp. 224Google Scholar; Nussbaum, Martha, Sex and Social Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Nickel, James, Making Sense of Human Rights, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007)Google Scholar; and Tasioulas, John, “Human Rights, Universality, and the Values of Personhood: Retracing Griffin's Steps,” European Journal of Philosophy 10 (2002), pp. 79100CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 See Nussbaum, “Human Rights and Human Capabilities”; and Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, pp. 41–44.

21 Nickel, Making Sense of Human Rights, p. 62.

22 Tasioulas, “Human Rights, Universality, and the Values of Personhood,” p. 88.

23 Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, p. 65.