The principle of human rights aims to identify the fundamentals required by each individual to live in a good life. The emergence and success of human rights are emphasized by three allied features; human rights are distinctively modern, are a political invention and are inherently revolutionary. To say that human rights are a distinctively recent construction does not refute the long history of values which have facilitated human rights into becoming the leading idealism it is today. Until a few centuries ago, a vast majority of political philosophers held the stance that rights were ‘natural, god-given and self evident’. Thus this essay will focus explicitly on the three allied features to explain how the nature of human rights is neither grounded in eternal truth or self evident. It will also look at significant figures involved in drafting the current ideas of human rights. Lastly, it will then proceed to demonstrate that only in recent times that it has become agreeable that rights are social constructs, open and subject to change determined by evolution of society. (www.huppi.com/kangaroo/L-rights.html)
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The emergence of human rights is primarily due to society’s reaction to ideas of natural and revolutionary rights. Natural rights are those rights allowing one to ‘act as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, in a manner which does not affect the natural rights of others’. These were seen as undeniable rights, rights that individuals intrinsically possess, which cannot be revoked by anyone. Natural rights were also juxtaposed heavily to the laws of nature. The comparison of the rights to the laws of nature however proves to be rather flawed. Laws of nature cannot be violated, yet for centuries, the human rights of people have been breached through situations in instances such as war and slavery. (‘introduction’, Inventing Human Right: A history (New York: Norton, 2007)
The modern era of human rights stress two significant concepts; the concept of human rights which dominated Europe during the Eighteenth-century (and societies to follow ) and the idea that people’s rights were determined by god. The concept of rights during the Eighteenth century was anchored by hierarchical establishments whereby rights were pertained to social classes rather than an individual. Right of citizens were ‘not based on a liberal concept of society, natural law and human reason, but based on the conception that those capable of human reason posses rights’. In other words, only those from higher classes were capable of reason, and thus, capable of possessing human rights.
Interestingly, this contradicts our understanding of universal human rights. All human beings by virtue have certain fundamental rights; in an ideal world, these fundamental rights cannot be taken away from any one person; there is nothing one can do to deprive others of these rights. Disturbingly however, ‘Those who confidently declared rights to be universal in the late eighteenth century excluded from political process ‘those without property, slaves, and free blacks and in some cases, religious minorities’. This raises the question of whether these declarations in fact contained ‘any real emancipatory meaning’. (‘introduction’, Inventing Human Right: A history (New York: Norton, 2007)
Although it can be argued that founders and declarers can be judged discriminatory for their inability to consider everyone truly equal in rights, their actions were what essentially prompted the political invention of human rights.
Human rights are, debatably, a product of political invention rather than a result of societal evolution. Monarchist Hobbes and philosopher Locke are two predominant figures .Hobbes innovation was to suggest that by ‘state of nature’ all individual should be viewed as equal however be subject to an all powerful ruler in order to prevent anarchy. In direct contrast, Locke’s interpreted this to potentially justify political revolution by making authorities dependant on Government’s consent. Locke’s perception that political powers were better off lying in the consent of government rather than in the consent of divine authority ensured that human rights remain protected. Locke’s argued that the whole objective of government was to protect and maintain public rights; the state could never have the power to destroy or impoverish its subject. If in the case a government begins to do this and breaches the contract, people have a right to replace it. This, in turn, imposed limits on what rulers could do, and limited the power that rulers could exercise, ensuring yet again that human rights were not violated.
This resulted in a profound transformation in society’s reactions to natural rights. As human rights emerged into a more modern form, allowed the fostering of humanism, rationalism and individualism, which is now embodied in modern human rights. Through its reliance on reason as a justification, human rights ultimately transcend and thus threaten traditional values and beliefs, grounded in eternal truth. (‘introduction’, Inventing Human Right: A history (New York: Norton, 2007)
Rights were often seen as god-given and self-evident. Thomas Jefferson, in the declaration of Independence declared that ‘we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. In saying that, Jefferson is essentially saying that human rights are god given and self-evident. Had Jefferson provided an adequate explanation for his claim, ‘the self-evidence of the claim would have evaporated’ as an assertion which requires argument. Jefferson sidestepped this by simply claiming that rights are self-evident. The mere fact that ongoing debate still exists in regards to Jefferson’s declaration, shows that Human Rights are anything but obvious. (‘introduction’, Inventing Human Right: A history (New York: Norton, 2007)
Human rights exist not just because of reason, but also because of emotion. In this sense, rights thus are not found, but depend on the shift of emotional regimes and the means by which society sees others within themselves and society as a whole. In respect to the act of torture, much of our response to torture is a result of the emotional response and what anti-torture organizations play on our emotions. The practice of torture has a long history in the world’s democracy dating back from ancient Greece to Rome. Throughout history, torture has often been used as a method of political re-education and coercion, being carried out on government orders to those who had committed the more serious crimes. Torture was performed in public to demonstrate the consequences other citizen would also encounter if they decide to perform the same deed. Nevertheless, as people developed the ability to look beyond social boundary and see others as people who shared the same moral universe, a profound transformation occurred through which, people adopted an emotional lead that torture was a violation of one’s basic human rights. This shows that Human rights are subject to revision and change as circumstances changes, more specifically, where there exists a psychological shift in the way people understand the concept of equality and fair justice.
Human rights thus were an invention not because of philosophers and revolutionaries logically derived them from first principle, but rather as a result of the acceptance of equality, regardless of social status and order. Critiques of figures such as Jefferson have had a lasting repercussion on the understanding of human rights. The tension which exists between individual rights and social responsibility is an ongoing tension, something which influences human rights today, yet again showing that rights are not at all self-evident. They are without doubt a reason construction, subject to change determined by the evolution of society’s moral values.
Human rights is an interdisciplinary quest through which various theories of knowledge in field such as medicine, political sciences, law and history contribute to each other and form a more comprehensive understand of what rights and wrongs. The rise of concerns in respect collective rights, not just the right to self determination and protections against discrimination, but also rights to live in a secure society, clean environment, food and basic human needs shapes our political perspective of what encompasses human rights. A broader understanding of human rights further facilitates in enabling experts in fields of law and medicine to create ‘convincing theories and enforce standards’ to protect its violations in respect to mental health and female circumcision.
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A comprehensive understanding of human rights assists in regulating the relationship between individuals and public authorities such as medical professionals. The primary purpose of practioners is to provide care. The world medical association, in its Declaration of Tokyo, advocates that ‘it is the privilege of the physician to practice medicine in the service of humanity, to preserve and restore bodily and mental health without distinction as to person’. Violations of these practices, undertaken in the forms of ‘torture, rape and genocide’ or inadequate health care can have an adverse effect on a person’s mental health. The complementary nature between mental disability and the rights of humans positions human rights to serve as a tool to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of persons with mental disability’. Through the implementation of these rights, medical professionals are given a sense of guidance as to what is meant by accepted good practice and the necessity to act in the interest of patients; especially in the case of treating those with mental disability. Doctors’ finding on what factors trigger mental disability, whether it be inside or outside government’s control allows states to ensure rights aren’t being breached, or improve the standard of care where needed. (Declaration of Tokyo, Human Rights and Global justice student reading guide, page 176)
Complementing the medical perspective (who diagnose the factors resulting in mental health) the ‘states are required to improve the meant health of individuals by providing decent economical facilities such as hospital-based treatment. The idea of human rights does not rely on government beneficences but rather asserts that these rights and freedoms are possessed by people simply as a result of their humanity; they are neither granted nor can they be denied by government. However, International human rights, an evolving body of law ‘holds the promise for advancing the welfare of rights of a person with disabilities’ through providing fundamental rights to fairness and protection from governmental interference with ‘autonomy, bodily integrity and liberty’. (Beyond moral claims: A human rights approach to mental health, medicalization of female circumcision’)
Another instance in which an understanding of human rights integrates into the works of both medical professionals and the law is the practice of female circumcision. Challenges to the practice of female circumcision as a violation of human rights can be taken on through both a legal and medical perspective. Although legislations prohibiting the act of female genital cutting were introduced in Guinea in 1965, prosecutions under the law in regards to this practice were rare. This was primarily a result of ‘sexuality being a private issue and sexual behaviour being largely determined by cultural beliefs’. In most cases, those who have been subject to circumcision often felt morally or socially accepted proceeding the event, and argue that the practice does not breach violations of human rights. In this circumstance, it cannot be argued that those involved are opposed to the practice of circumcision. However, through the argument of right to health, an act which considers female circumcising to ‘produce menacing health problems’ presents the means by which the women’s’ right to health were being breached. Beyond moral claims: A human rights approach to mental health, ‘medicalization of female circumcision’)
Thus it can be seen, in order to gain a comprehensive understanding whether human rights are being breached, one must not only be knowledgeable in any particular field, but have a collective idea of rights based on these disciplines. Both the legal and medical understandings of factors resulting in mental health ensure that both the needs of those with mental health are met in a medical environment whilst ensuring that their fundamental rights to freedom and healthcare are not violated. Similarly, in the case of female circumcise, both legal and medical implications must be understood in order for ‘convincing theories’ to be derived in regards to the health and further enforce standards’ to protect violations of basic human rights.
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