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About this book

What are human rights? Why do we have them? How do we know for sure which rights are specific to humans? And how should we respond when we disagree on them and on the obligations we owe to others who claim human rights? These are just a few of the questions taken up in this broad-ranging and systematic introduction to the theory of human rights.

The author draws on both traditional perspectives and current debates in the field to address key contemporary issues and conceptual questions. She asks whether or not human rights can be said to be universal, and whether human rights can encompass global justice, environmental rights and global security for future generations. In addition she explores the particular effects of differences of gender, sexuality, culture and religion on the nature of human rights in contemporary society, and the implications these might have for international legal and political regimes.

Providing a comprehensive and accessible account of the key theoretical ideas in the field, this text is essential for those seeking to understand the importance of human rights in shaping the moral and political claims of individuals, cultures and societies across the world.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Human rights have become the authoritative language in which to advance moral and political claims. If I say that you have violated my human rights, I am taken to be saying something important, something that indicates a grave wrong on your part, and implies duties, certainly on your part, and perhaps for other people as well. Human rights are claims about what ought to happen in the real world.
Kerri Woods

1. What is a Human Right?

Abstract
If we are to resist the confusion that Milan Kundera describes here, we will need to be clear about what, precisely, is a human right. What is the difference between a desire, a need, a duty, a right, a human right? What is it about human rights that makes them important as moral claims and political practice? What sorts of agents can be rights-bearers? What are the implications of conflicts between rights? In this chapter, I aim to clarify human rights as a concept, which should, I hope, make the questions that we address later in the book — questions about why we have human rights and what we have human rights to — that bit easier to get to grips with.
Kerri Woods

2. A Brief History of Human Rights

Abstract
Human rights as they exist in the world today, in statute, international agreements, political claims and philosophical debates, are importantly influenced by the historical antecedents by which they have been shaped. As James Griffin points out above, human rights did not fall from the sky fully formed in 1948. The ideas and practices of preceding generations of scholars, lawyers, political leaders and citizen activists influenced and informed the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the claims and contestations of contemporary activists and theorists. This chapter explores some of the ways in which earlier concepts of natural rights and Western ideas about freedom, equality and justice have shaped contemporary understandings of human rights. It also reflects on the ways in which important historical events have inspired new developments in the concept of human rights. We may justly hold, with Griffin, that understanding these histories is crucial to understanding contemporary human rights.
Kerri Woods

3. Philosophical Foundations for Human Rights

Abstract
The question of sound philosophical foundations for human rights continues to generate controversy amongst theorists, if not amongst many (perhaps most) of those who campaign for human rights in the real world. The latter may find frustrating the persistent scepticism of some human rights theorists about the normative foundations of human rights claims, though the overwhelming majority of moral, legal and political theorists in fact endorse human rights. Yet it seems to me that Perry is absolutely right to insist that a theoretical justification for human rights is practically necessary — whenever and wherever human rights are challenged in the real world, advocates of human rights need to be able to offer reasons in support of their demands. If an agent ought to do X because a theory of human rights says so, then the agent might reasonably ask why he should be guided by a theory of human rights — in other words, what are the grounds or foundations of human rights claims? This question matters, not least because, as Michael Freeman points out, ‘rights without reasons are vulnerable to denial and abuse’ (1994, p. 493).
Kerri Woods

4. A Political Conception of Human Rights

Abstract
The project of justifying human rights, considered from various philosophical perspectives canvassed in the previous chapter, might be thought to be characteristic of what is variously called the ‘naturalistic’, ‘orthodox’ or ‘traditional’ conception of human rights. These approaches typically hold that what grounds human rights is to be found in some kind of account of the nature of human beings or some facet of humanity. But how the moral rights so justified translate into political and legal realities remains somewhat mysterious, even if the project of justification itself is successful. In contrast to this approach, the political conception of human rights holds that the naturalistic conception is mistaken in important and fundamental ways.
Kerri Woods

5. Religion and Human Rights

Abstract
Declarations of natural rights in the eighteenth century referred to men and their rights as ‘sacred’. Contemporary human rights make no reference to a religious foundation. Abdulaziz Sachedina, quoted above, is amongst those who wonder whence derives the moral authority for the special status of human beings if we subscribe to a secular account of human rights. Other critics are sceptical of the capacity of purportedly secular human rights to command the allegiance of religious believers in a deeply diverse world. The UDHR protects both the right to freedom of conscience and the right to freedom of religion in the same article (18). The right to freedom of conscience protects the right to hold beliefs consistent with atheism or agnosticism. The right to freedom of religion as detailed in the UDHR also includes the right to change one’s religion. Freedom of conscience, then, implies the right to hold any religious beliefs or none. This appears to be incompatible with religious traditions, such as Islam, that prohibit apostasy.
Kerri Woods

6. Universalism and Relativism

Abstract
In the last chapter we considered human rights and religions as competing universalist moral visions. The idea of universalist ethics has itself been attacked by various defenders of some form of cultural or ethical relativism. We should be careful, however, not to overstate these challenges and their salience for human rights. The points raised by Sally Engle Merry and Josiah A.M. Cobbah, above, both herald potential pitfalls for a serious discussion of the issues of universalism and relativism in the context of human rights: there is the risk of essentializing nuanced and complex aspects of the debate, and there is also the risk of failing to grasp the precise sites of disagreement. The fact that a critic of human rights raises doubts about their universality does not entail that they affirm relativism. Outside of university seminars, full-blown relativists are fairly rare: few people actively deny the validity of any universal precept. But both the idea of relativism at a philosophical level, and the persistence of conflicts between what are taken to be cultural values and the freedoms and values protected in human rights, present challenges for a defence of human rights that merit careful consideration.
Kerri Woods

7. Minority Groups and Minority Rights

Abstract
The previous chapter continued the discussion, begun in Chapter 5 in relation to religious ethics, of the implications of diverse thick cultural, religious and moral values for the idea of universal human rights. This is not a simple debate between universalism and relativism. Though moral particularism and the concept of the self are important elements of this discussion, it is often a debate between competing universalisms, and sometimes a debate about the sorts of goods that universal norms ought to promote or protect.
Kerri Woods

8. Global Poverty and Human Rights

Abstract
There has been an explosion of philosophical interest in global poverty and human rights in recent years. It was not always so: almost as soon as the UDHR was proclaimed, sceptics of social and economic rights denounced them as mere ‘manifesto rights’, of little political value, and expressive of conceptual confusion about the very idea of human rights.
Kerri Woods

9. Environmental Human Rights?

Abstract
In the early twenty-first century we face a looming environmental crisis. The depletion of non-renewables, such as fossil fuels, is actually less of a concern than the threat to renewable environmental resources, such as a stable climate and biodiversity. If Shue is right that human rights protect against ‘standard threats’ to human dignity (see previous chapter), then we might well find that environmental problems turn out to be amongst the standard threats that human beings face in the twenty-first century. In recent years there have been calls for the protection of ‘environmental human rights’ from NGOs and activist groups (such as Amnesty International, above), as well as philosophical defences of such rights from within the academic community. These have sometimes been conceived in broad terms, for example, as a human right to a ‘decent’ environment, and sometimes in very specific terms, as in a human right to water, or to the ownership of specific natural resources. The global reach of human rights seems prima facie well suited to addressing the global scope of environmental problems like climate change and biodiversity loss.
Kerri Woods

Conclusion

Abstract
Human rights have become so accepted a part of moral and political discourse at a global level, and in many parts of the world at national and local level as well, that their authoritative status is often taken for granted, by politicians, ordinary citizens, activists and political philosophers. Like the American Revolutionaries, many of us hold the truth of human rights to be self-evident. Moreover, it seems appropriate, in some respects, to take this moral authority for granted, for to question the validity of human rights seems to lead us toward implicitly supporting tyrants and torturers. Those who deny the validity of human rights may not find themselves in appealing company.
Kerri Woods
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