Indivisible Human Rights: A History

Indivisible Human Rights: A History

Indivisible Human Rights: A History

Indivisible Human Rights: A History


Human rights activists frequently claim that human rights are indivisible, and the United Nations has declared the indivisibility, interdependency, and interrelatedness of these rights to be beyond dispute. Yet in practice a significant divide remains between the two grand categories of human rights: civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other. To date, few scholars have critically examined how the notion of indivisibility has shaped the complex relationship between these two sets of rights.

In Indivisible Human Rights, Daniel J. Whelan offers a carefully crafted account of the rhetoric of indivisibility. Whelan traces the political and historical development of the concept, which originated in the contentious debates surrounding the translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into binding treaty law as two separate Covenants on Human Rights. In the 1960s and 1970s, Whelan demonstrates, postcolonial states employed a revisionist rhetoric of indivisibility to elevate economic and social rights over civil and political rights, eventually resulting in the declaration of a right to development. By the 1990s, the rhetoric of indivisibility had shifted to emphasize restoration of the fundamental unity of human rights and reaffirm the obligation of states to uphold both major human rights categories--thus opening the door to charges of violations resulting from underdevelopment and poverty.

As Indivisible Human Rights illustrates, the rhetoric of indivisibility has frequently been used to further political ends that have little to do with promoting the rights of the individual. Drawing on scores of original documents, many of them long forgotten, Whelan lets the players in this drama speak for themselves, revealing the conflicts and compromises behind a half century of human rights discourse. Indivisible Human Rights will be welcomed by scholars and practitioners seeking a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding the realization of human rights.


It is often said that all human rights are “indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated.” This tripartite formulation is taken as given. In recent years, the United Nations has boldly declared that the indivisibility, interdependency, and interrelatedness of human rights is “beyond dispute.” This is an interesting claim, considering that this book explores the unsettled and contested nature of the indivisibility of especially the two grand categories of civil and political, and economic, social, and cultural rights. Even if indivisibility is not beyond dispute, many continue to ascribe indivisibility, interdependency, and interrelatedness to the nature or character of contemporary human rights, as if this were entirely self-evident. For the U.N. as well as others, declaring the matter settled should prompt us to inquire: What was settled? How was it settled?

When used to describe the qualities or characteristics of human rights, the adjectives “indivisible,” “interrelated,” and “interdependent” usually come as a package (along with “universal”), or the separate words are used interchangeably. This is widely reflected in the scholarly literature, writings of human rights advocates and practitioners, and authoritative interpretations especially surrounding the content and obligations of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Craig Scott urges us not to pay too much attention to semantics when we consider the different meanings that the terms “indivisible,” “interdependent,” and “interrelated” may convey. I think we should ignore this advice, because a great deal of confusion persists about what these adjectives tell us about human rights. While the statement “human rights are indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated” seems to be the answer to a question, it is unclear what that question is. Do these adjectives say something about how human rights function, or what they mean conceptually? Do they tell us something . . .

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