At 70: A few problems with the human rights concept

At 70: A few problems with the human rights concept

By Jan Oberg

December 10, 2018

Today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70. All reason to celebrate. Without the norms embedded in this extremely important document, humankind would be much worse off.

Because normativity is important even though it is only words. It enables us to make those who violate human rights accountable. And that is, in general terms, an extremely important aspect of the UN and its Charter.

So too the norm expressed in its Article 1 – that peace shall be established by peaceful means and only when all such means have been tried an found in vain, can the UN member states take to violent means. As a last resort.

That said, the only two problems I have with the human rights philosophy and concept are:

  1. The word “human” – the implicit idea that only humans have right, not all the other creatures on earth. That is, it is a very anthropocentric concept. We need something much more inclusive and holistic today.
  2. The word “rights” – people constantly claiming their rights is good but it’s not enough. Gandhi said it a very long time ago: “There are no rights without duties.”

One could also formulate it this way: Human beings have duties vis-a-vis those whose rights are not embedded in any declaration, i.e. other living creatures, be it trees, rivers or microorganisms, in short: Mother Earth. And these creatures cannot speak up and claim their rights – for which reason we shall have to show empathy and use our imagination to “hear” them.

We need to see it as our duty to care – care both for the non-human beings and, most importantly, caring for the yet unborn, that is for future generations.

This means giving up the contractual thinking so fundamental in the Western worldview or social cosmology.

When it comes to the yet unborn, we have to do something to make their lives possible and even good even though they cannot claim these rights and even though we do not have a ‘contract’ – a quid pro quo – with them.

The question “what did future generations ever do for us/me” is of course meaningless. But we need anyhow to think beyond ourselves in time and space, all of us: Care for the rights of the non-human beings and for the not yet born human beings.

Summary of the Declaration of December 10, 1948

Other serious problems

It goes without saying that there are many more problems with the human rights concept and policies today. To mention a few:

  1. How universal can they be, given the world has so many and different cultures, ways of thinking and historical experiences? Is it at all realistic to argue that they can be universal?
  2. To which extent can one argue that the Declaration came out as basically Western product and with too much focus on the individual?
  3. How destructive has it been for the whole idea that, since about the intervention in Yugoslavia, human rights have been (mis)used as an argument, or justification, for the concept and policy of humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility To Protect (R2P) – advocating the legitimate use of military force in the name of human rights protection – even though these interventions have, more often than not, caused gross human rights violation and been conducted without a UN Security Council mandate?
  4. The whole intimacy between government and human rights NGO – where the N stands more for Near- than Non-Governmental, e.g. the rotation of government officials into human rights organisations and vice versa – in other words, the fundamental politicization of human rights to such an extent that the commitment to human rights become purely political and selective, a weapon in the (propaganda) for oneself and against designated enemies. 

So what about implementation?

That said – admittedly in the more philosophical realm – it is good to also discuss how we can, much more fully, implement the present human rights norms.

You just need to let your eyes run down over the Declaration’s 30 points in summary above to see how far the world still is from the ideals – and how the West that has been championing this Declaration has itself become increasingly authoritarian over time, excusing itself predominantly by referring to its global war on terror.

For the Western world, human rights have always been predominantly about freedoms to speak, assemble and travel etc. – whereas the rights in the economic sphere – such as the right to a job and the right to have enough to survive on, even the right to life –  have always been secondary. 

This of course has to do with global, Western-driven capitalism which is not exactly a human rights promoting system, just look at the ongoing marginalisation, suffering, poverty and misery of millions of people. And when China has championed these rights the last 40 years, the West points out that it systematically violates human right, the rights of course as the West sees them.

Or look at the wars and human- and system-caused environmental problems that cause the number of IDPs (Internally Displaces Persons), refugees, asylum seekers and migrants (different concepts!) increase, now so tragically approaching 70 million fellow human beings.

A new ethics of global care

We, therefore, need a new ethics of global care – norm systems like Christianity talking about what you as an individual should and should not do to your neighbour are way too narrow in time and space in our globalising world and in the future.

Fortunately, there are some good attempts at re-thinking rights and duties such as The Earth Charter Initiative and The People’s Charter to Create A Nonviolent World – but they have not been integrated enough in the general discourse and neither have they been institutionalised nor made legally binding by governments.

While humanity can see progress here and there in terms of civilisation – which means respecting the equal human rights of everybody – there is certainly a very long way to go to improve both the way we think and speak about these things and the way the right, all of them, are realised in daily lives on the ground around our troubled Earth.

1. I have written about these matters some 25 years ago in “Alternatives To World Disorder In the 1990s. Sustainability, Nonviolence, Global Ethics And Democracy,” General Education Series, Institute of Asian Cultural Studies, International Christian University, ICU, Tokyo, 1991.

Here’s a photo of one of the summaries about global ethics:

One Response to "At 70: A few problems with the human rights concept"

  1. fjahanpour   December 10, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    This is a very important and timely warning. It is good to be reminded of the provisions of the Human Rights Charter, firstly to see how many of its provisions remain unenforced, and secondly to see how they need to be amended and broadened. Sadly, it seems that these principles have been often used by powerful countries as weapons against other countries but not against themselves. Just see how many Western leaders have been tried for their war crimes and human rights violations. As Churchill said: “History will be kind to me, because I write history”.

    To be fair, most Western countries have been forced to observe some of the human rights principles in their own countries as the result of public pressure, but they have got away with murder in other countries, as we have seen in the cases of illegal wars and war crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc. and in their support for saw-wielding dictators when it has suited their interests. We need some form of mechanism with some teeth to make sure that these principles are observed in relation to other countries too.

    Your other point about the need to go beyond human rights, and to make sure that we pay attention to the requirements of the world around us is also very important. In the desertification, deforestation, the loss of fish stocks, the slaughter of hundreds of millions of animals each year in a cruel way for human consumption, chicken farms, the loss of habitat for many species due to the use of herbicide and industrial farming, etc. we have seen a total disregard for nature and its impact ultimately on our own lives. More and more evidence is being produced that animals are sentient beings and, in fact, there is an organic link between us and the whole of nature. This is an area that needs urgent attention for the future of life, including human life, on earth.


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