Chapter 4 - Background Information on Human Rights
Why should I respect the rights of others if others do not respect my rights?
… In the end, though, it is probably down to you and the type of person you want to be or the kind of world you want to live in. So you could reflect on what it would say about you if you were to behave in the manner that you dislike in others. Or think about the type of world it would be if everyone violated everyone else's rights in a tit-for-tat manner.
Why should those who violate the rights of others in the most inhumane way be regarded as subjects of 'human' rights?
This is perhaps the most difficult but also the most essential part of human rights theory to accept. It can sometimes seem that certain individuals are so lacking in humane characteristics that only blind faith could enable us to see them as human. The important points are perhaps the following:
- Firstly, despite some people's apparent inhumanity, every individual possesses some humanity. Villains love their mothers, their children, their husbands and wives - or someone. Villains feel pain, rejection, despair and jealousy; they desire to be appreciated, valued, supported, loved and understood. They all, every one of them, possess some, if not most, of these exclusively human emotions. That makes them human and deserving of our respect.
- Secondly, we do ourselves no good in desiring to hurt villains in the same way that they have hurt others: such feelings only make us less worthy of respect as well.
- Thirdly, even if, perchance, a villain were ever to emerge with 'human' form but without any human characteristics (and there has never been one yet), who among us could say with absolute certainty that he or she is Not A Human? On what criteria? On the basis, perhaps, that they are incapable of loving or being loved? But what if we turn out to be mistaken in that belief?
The third point reminds us that we need to consider the risks for humanity as a whole in setting up some people to judge others where the consequences of that judgment are terrible and irreversible. Do we really want a world where such judgments are made and where some people are simply designated as not possessing human rights and therefore as non-human? Without the absolute universality of all human rights, that is the type of world that we would have.
Even criminals and heads of state[have human rights]?
Absolutely everyone. Criminals and heads of state are humans too. The power of human rights lies in the very fact that they treat everyone as equal in terms of possessing human dignity. Some people may have violated the rights of others or may pose a threat to society and may therefore need to have their rights limited in some way in order to protect others, but only within certain limits. These limits are defined as being the minimum which is necessary for a life of human dignity.
How can I defend my rights?
Try pointing out that they have been violated; claim your rights. Let the other person know that you know they are not entitled to treat you in this way. Point to the relevant articles in the UDHR, in the ECHR or the other international documents. If there is legislation in your own country, point to that as well. Tell others about it: tell the press, write to your parliamentary representative and head of state, inform any NGOs that are engaged in human rights activism. Ask their advice. Speak to a lawyer, if you have the opportunity. Make sure that your government knows what action you are taking. Make them realise that you are not going to give up. Show them the support you can draw on. In the final analysis, and if everything else has failed, you may want to resort to the courts.
Does anyone have a duty to protect my rights?
Yes. A right is meaningless without a corresponding responsibility or duty on someone else's part. Every individual has a moral duty not to violate your personal dignity but your government, in signing up to international agreements, has not just a moral duty but also a legal duty.
What use are 'human rights' to me, when my government violates the rights of ordinary people on a daily basis and has no concern for the disapproval of the international community?
Again - they are a start; they are better than having nothing at all and they will, under the right circumstances and with the right approach, be able to influence the government to change some, if not all, of its practices. This can sometimes seem a very distant hope, when violations by the government are particularly severe or particularly frequent, but history has shown, time and again, that it is possible. Also, opportunities today are probably better than they have been up until now. Promoting change can be a slow process, but the fact that individuals have these rights and that they are increasingly recognised throughout the world - and are therefore at least of some concern to governments - provides us with a powerful weapon and a valuable head start.
If I respect the human rights of others, does that mean allowing them to do whatever they want?
Not if their desire involves violating your or anyone else's rights. But you may need to be careful not to be too demanding over the extent of your own rights: you might find someone's behaviour annoying or misguided, but that need not necessarily be an infringement of your rights. Therefore, if you want others to allow you to behave as you wish, you may need to cultivate a more tolerant attitude towards the behaviour of others!
Can I do anything, including using violence against someone, to defend my rights?
In general, no. But if it is a genuine case of self-defence, then a legitimate use of force, appropriate to the threat against you, may be admissible. It is not permissible as 'retribution' for the wrong you have suffered but only in order to protect yourself from further harm. Torture is never admissible.