In invoking too many rights as 'universal', we trivialise the ones that matter, lose our sense of moral discrimination and overlook fundamental cultural differences, argues Bhikhu Parekh
The language of human rights is increasingly acquiring the status of a universally understood and accepted mode of moral communication. Oppressed and marginalised groups the world over turn to it to articulate their demands in the certain knowledge that this is the most effective way to draw attention to their grievances. But it is precious and fragile, and we need to protect it against its overzealous advocates and cynical detractors lest they should in their own different ways discredit, weaken or undermine it.
Since the second world war, the list of human rights has expanded to cover all possible rights, including the right not to be detained for more than four days before a court hearing. The scope of human rights has increased, too. Human rights were initially seen as regulative principles of political life, setting limits on the power of government and specifying its broad purposes. They are now extended to public and private organisations, including universities, and used to structure their procedures and modes of operation. They are also expected to regulate interpersonal relations.
Increasingly, human rights are taken to represent the fundamental or "core" values of society and are expected to provide the basis of national integration for an increasingly plural political community.
The importance of human rights is too obvious to need elaboration, but difficulties arise when we get their place in moral and political life out of proportion and ignore their limits. The result is a loss of focus and moral force. When all or almost all rights become human rights, we lose our sense of moral discrimination. The right not to be enslaved, tortured or disposed of by murder squads is morally quite different from the right not to be held without trial for more than four days or to receive prompt medical attention. Human rights are a great human achievement, and their linguistic trivialisation is the first step towards dissipating this remarkable historical progress.
Obsession with rights and the concomitant spirit of litigiousness is a widely noticed phenomenon in the US, and it is now spreading to other western societies and even further afield. Since the UK incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into its domestic legislation, we have begun to talk of developing a culture of human rights. In such a culture, parents are told that they should love their children because kids have a human right to parental love; spouses are to cherish and be faithful to each other because each has a right to expect this from the other; and professors and teachers should prepare their lectures conscientiously because their students have a right to be taught properly.
But many worthwhile things in life are not a matter of right but a freely given gift - for example, love and friendship. Some of these can be made a matter of right, but they lose part of their value and even get corrupted when demanded as a right or given as an anticipated response to it. There is something odd about parents who care for their children not out of love or even parental duty but because this is what their children have a right to demand of them.
Children do, of course, have a right to be cared for, but this is not the reason why parents care or should care for them. We invoke the right only in relation to those parents who lack normal parental emotions and, therefore, need to be morally and even legally coerced into doing their duty. An appeal to rights is an indispensable safety net for situations where all other moral motivations have dried up or failed, but it cannot be the basis of society. Indeed, a society that exclusively or even primarily relies on them to define and ensure moral order is too impoverished to nurture valuable forms of human excellence or even to last long.
We need the language of human rights, but we also need the languages of virtue, responsibility, duty, character and so on. Some duties are entailed by others' rights; others, such as the duty to tell the truth, are independent in origin and generate no rights. Some moral actions involve neither rights nor duties and spring from the love of goodness, the kind of character or virtue one has developed, or the kind of person one is.
In the case of asylum, for example, as moral beings, we have a duty to alleviate human suffering and to help those in need. We should offer asylum seekers a home and treat them with respect, but if their number is too large for us to accommodate, we should seek international cooperation.
Although our duty is reinforced by international treaties such as the Geneva Convention, it is not a response to a displaced person's right and it does not generate a right. It is grounded in justice, altruism, human solidarity and even an enlightened self-interest; and it tells us what we owe to others without at any stage invoking the language of rights.
When the language of human rights becomes dominant, there is a grave danger that valuable forms of moral sensibility and motivations might suffer a decline. We might come to think that as long as we respect others' rights, we owe them nothing more, or that so long as we have done them no harm, their problems are not our concern.
Furthermore, in a rights-based society, other moral motivations and virtues could get marginalised and even atrophy for lack of encouragement and exercise. In such a society, the main concern is to ensure that human rights are fully respected in every major area of life. We work out charters of rights and services that patients, pupils and passengers are entitled to demand, and we devise systems of accountability. But such a system is bound to discourage a whole host of impulses, such as generosity, spontaneity and a willingness to take risks and go beyond what is required lest one should fall foul of the procedures or disturb the bureaucratic rhythm of the system.
Another area where the language of human rights appears rather pale and even perhaps shallow has to do with some of the egregious forms of human suffering men have inflicted on each other. Hitler did not just deny the human rights of Jews when he sent millions to concentration camps, and to say that he did is to fail to articulate the enormity of his deed. He did nothing less than deny their humanity; he degraded and debased them, treated them as worms he could trample on at will. This is why we call such actions inhuman, monstrous, evil. Such situations, quite different from ordinary violations of human rights, require a different moral vocabulary.
The supposed universality of human rights also raises difficulties. In their standard version, they rest on the belief that human beings are basically individuals, that their humanity transcends their differences and matters more. This form of understanding human beings is a historical achievement that is possible only under certain conditions. It would not have made much sense to the ancient Greeks, and it does not make sense to the Amazonian tribesmen or many an indigenous people. Although indigenous people are our chronological contemporaries and hence exposed to our ideas, they are not our historical contemporaries and they base their self-understanding on different modes of thought. We cannot therefore require or expect them to conduct their affairs in the language of human rights.
To say to a tribal woman that the tribal elders or rules violate her human right to equality would make little sense to her and, if it did, her demand would not resonate with and make any impact on her tribe. She can certainly draw inspiration from the doctrine of human rights, but she needs to formulate her grievances in her own suitably reinterpreted native idioms.
This is broadly how Muslim women are constructing their struggle for equality. Many of them do not like the language of human rights, finding the term "human" too abstract and "rights" too confrontational. Although inspired by some of the moral impulses underlying human rights, they redefine and translate these in the thick vocabularies of their traditions.
When the doctrine of human rights is creatively reinterpreted, transformed and given a novel form, it is difficult to decide whether those involved do or do not subscribe to human rights.
Even when societies share the language of human rights, they are bound to differ in how they define, realise and prioritise them. They might all cherish the right to life but disagree on when it begins and ends, what it entails, and whether the human foetus has such a right. Human rights conflict, and must either be hierarchically graded or traded off. Although formally universal, human rights are inevitably mediated by a society's traditions and cultures and are enjoyed by individuals in highly varied forms.
Moreover, human rights are predicated on a belief in the fundamental identity of all human beings and presuppose a homogeneous subject. Human beings, however, are never like that. Since all statements of universal human rights have until recently concentrated on a homogeneous human subject, they predictably ignored the rights of women and children. Such rights are universal in the sense that they are claimed on behalf of all women and children, but they are not universal in the sense of being extended to all human beings.
We can push the argument further. It is obvious that different societies are based on different ideas of human excellence and define human beings and their humanity differently. In some East Asian societies, the right to be cared for by one's children in one's old age is widely seen as a fundamental moral right. As different from ordinary rights, these rights are seen by the societies concerned as central to their conceptions of a good or dignified human life. There is no valid reason to deny them the status or the name of human rights simply because they are not universal.
The societies involved may not mind if others follow their lead and claim these rights. However, unlike the West, they have no interest in spreading their view of human rights. All they claim is that for them these rights are human rights and are just as important as the rights to life, liberty and property that are stressed in the West. To accommodate their legitimate claim, we need to break the link between universality and human rights and to acknowledge that while some human rights are universal, others are not or need not be.
So although human rights are those rights that are integral to and express and nurture the dignity, worth or humanity of human beings, they obviously require countless other more specific rights either as a means to their realisation or as conditions of their exercise. As these rights are derivative and contingent in nature and have an instrumental value, they are not and should not be called human rights.
The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is a mixed bag, including genuinely universal human rights and those specific to western liberal societies. We need to separate the two. We should not make the mistake of ignoring the differences of nature, universality and moral status of some human rights. Not even the most basic or fundamental human rights are equally fundamental.
Bhikhu Parekh holds professorships at Hull University and the London School of Economics. This is an edited version of his Oxford Amnesty Lecture, sponsored by The THES .