The Rights Idea: Knowledge, Human Rights, and Change

By Khan, Irene | Harvard International Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Rights Idea: Knowledge, Human Rights, and Change


Khan, Irene, Harvard International Review


Amnesty International is committed to the principles of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Did this document invent the concept of human rights or express latent ideas? Where did the idea of human rights arise?

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The idea of human rights predates the UDHR and is grounded in values of human dignity, justice, and freedom that have been present in philosophical and religious thought for hundreds of years. The UDHR formalized these values and principles.

Is that concept of human dignity grounded in any particular philosophy? Is it a result of Western Enlightenment thinking, or is it common to all?

There is, of course, a strong strand of thought within the academy that traces human rights to the Enlightenment. But I would say that some of the ideas, principles, and values of human rights are common to all civilizations. In that sense, the basic principles of human rights are deeply rooted in the concepts of universality, indivisibility, and inalienability. They are there because we are human beings, and because we are human beings they apply equally to all of us.

Is the existence of human rights now inarguable?

Human rights principles continue to be challenged in some parts of the world and by some groups, often in the context of debates about Asian values, Shari'a law, and so on. Right now, governments that have historically championed human rights principles are eroding them in the name of national security and counter-terrorism.

What is indisputable, however, is that over the last half century, a strong normative framework of international human rights has emerged. International human rights treaties have been drafted, and all countries in the world are party to at least one. International and national human rights mechanisms have been established. National court decisions increasingly give weight to international human rights standards. Most important, a strong and dynamic human rights movement has developed, passionately committed to human rights as a global value.

Take Amnesty International as an example. Created by a handful of people in Western countries in 1961, it is today a global movement of almost two million people in more than 100 countries. When Amnesty was born, there were few other human rights organizations. Today, the movement is vibrant and dynamic, ranging from large international organizations like Amnesty to very small community groups. In the words of Michael Ignatieff, "human rights have gone global by going local." Women's groups, environmentalist groups, and development groups use the language and tools of human rights to advance their causes. Human rights have become a part of people's ideology and not just a part of political and legal systems.

Some challenges to human rights stem from culturally specific concepts. Amnesty describes itself as advocating impartially for the human rights of all individuals independently of political ideology. Can a political ideology deny the existence of human rights?

Some extremist fringe groups may deny the existence of human rights, but in my experience all governments--even repressive ones--want to be seen as respecting human rights. Governments do not like being named and shamed as human rights abusers. They may seek to justify their violations, but they rarely deny the legitimacy of human rights.

The universality of human rights lies in the acceptance of human rights by governments and in their application to all individuals. Even the worst violator is entitled to respect for his human rights. Human rights are for the worst of us as well as the best of us. That is why Amnesty fights to abolish the death penalty even for the worst criminals.

The methods of social mobilization may differ from the methods of policy change. Is the ideological or conceptual approach that many academics adopt toward the question of human rights more likely to persuade a private citizen? …

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