Article: Human dignity and human rights

Simple idea, but difficult to realise


Human rights are basically quite simple to understand. The core comprises two simple values: human dignity and equal rights. The view on humankind underpinning these values asserts that all individuals – simply in their capacity as human beings – have inviolable value. Because we all have the same human dignity, we have equal rights and must benefit from the same rights, regardless colour, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. As the core values are important in all cultures, in all civilized states, as well as in all the major religions, human rights today have global support. When the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, it was the first time a global organisation declared that human rights are universal in their nature. However, it is obvious in the current situation that we have a long way to go before human rights are realised for all. The war in Syria and tens of millions of refugees illustrate the complex challenges of our time. We are still witness to armed conflicts, unrest and poverty.

Is it therefore wrong to claim that human rights are universal? No, not at all. Even if human rights so far have not been implemented universally in practice, their moral foundation and the many resolutions adopted by the UN justify the use of the term. Human rights are universal and the goal is that they should be realised for all. Fortunately, human rights are more than a moral concern. They are concrete legal and political measures negotiated by UN member states and other international organisations.


Historical roots


The history of human rights comprises the attempt to unite moral, legal and political concerns within ideal legislation. The challenge is that so much appears to be in a constant state of flux, including ideas about morals and rights. The idea that all human beings have certain inalienable rights has long historical roots. Historians will nevertheless concede that the "human rights" in a given epoch – regardless how universal they were claimed to be – did not apply to all. Even 2300 years ago, the natural law philosophers proclaimed that there were moral and judicial norms that applied to all human beings, regardless of time and place and local traditions. Paradoxically, their contemporary society was based on slavery and was a far cry from today's ideas about rights. Nor did the documents spearheading the modern epoch of human rights – the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) – include everyone. Women, half of the population, were excluded.

The American human rights philosopher Jack Donnelly contends that any list of human rights – even the idea itself – is historically specific1.The development of human rights refers to an expansion of which rights apply and which groups are considered worthy of having them. His approach is also an argument for the universal validity of the rights today. It is only in our time, he states, that we can claim that the idea of human dignity – the moral foundation of human rights – can be said to comprise everyone. Today's modern perception of human rights, he claims, is based on a radical democratisation of the idea of human dignity. Important factors that prompted the social processes that would lead society in a more egalitarian direction were the emergence of the modern bureaucratic states and the market economy, and developments in science and rationality. The demand for human rights became the answer to the many challenges arising from the ashes of the old social systems. As "modernisation" continued, more and more groups demanded their rights as protection from new threats against their interests and dignity. The processes which triggered the emergence of human rights started in Europe, but as time passed they spread across the world. Therefore, we can say that in a way Europe did not develop the idea of human rights, rather the opposite, human rights helped to develop Europe, as they continue to develop societies across the world to this day. In her book The History of Human Rights (2004), Micheline R. Ishay states that historical progress for ideas relating to human rights has often been followed by serious setbacks. But the reactionary forces are not able to eliminate what has been gained in the past. Rather the human rights gained are preserved because each new generation builds on hope and what has been achieved by their predecessors, whilst they continue the fight to improve their basic conditions. The development of human rights is like a balancing act relating to the power inequality between the authorities on the one side and the individual on the other. Today's understanding of human rights represents a synthesis of the best elements from the continual change processes that create history.


The international state system


International human rights are adapted to – and a consequence of – today's international system of states where inter-governmental organisations play important roles. The organisations are the inter-governmental fora where the states negotiate international agreements on human rights. While the documents point out that individuals have rights, the states are responsible for implementing them. The rights therefore link together three interdependent levels: The international organisations, the state and the individual. Therefore, the challenge lies in the fact that the states have the responsibility for realising the rights, even if human rights are by nature universal.

The UN and other international organisations work in many ways to encourage the states to realise human rights. One of the most important measures is to convince the states to commit to the conventions relating to human rights. When they do so, they must amend their national legislation to harmonize with the obligations in the convention. The fact that they are not obliged to do this immediately when they become a member is based on the understanding that change takes time, and that the states are independent and strong actors in an international system without any central government, court of law or police authority with complete control. The idea is that it is better to include even the "villains" in the “good company”, hoping that the process of socialisation will lead to a positive outcome over time. When they are inside rather than outside the tent, they will be constantly encouraged to improve.


Not quite universal?


Some claim that human rights are a Western invention based on an individualistic way of thinking where the freedom and independence of the individual are placed above other considerations, and that they neither can nor should be forced onto other societies in the world with other cultures and traditions. These cultural relativists believe there is no such thing as a moral norm that applies to all, but that cultures must be understood according to what they are. What fits in one region does not necessarily fit in another.

This perspective is found in varying degrees according to how "relative" one considers the cultures to be. The more "relative", the more critically this perspective can be criticised. A radical interpretation has consequences that should be considered with care. An illustrative example may be the activist group that discussed the death penalty. One participant claimed that it was correct to protest against the use of the death penalty in the US but not in Iran because "there the death penalty is part of the culture". The consequence of such thinking may then be a gradation of human dignity, where a human being who is an Iranian is valued less than an American.

Some cultural relativists argue as if cultures are static. Societies are, however, in constant change, and it is therefore important to be aware of the norms and traditions that should be preserved or changed. When making such an assessment, political, moral and future-oriented aspects should be emphasised over the tradition-bound and historical arguments – the "because-it-has-always-been-this-way" stance.

Claiming that human rights do not apply to all is a serious contention. There is no doubt that protecting the individual is the main point of the rights. However, the term "individualistic" must not be read as "egoistical". The moral standpoint is that all people have the same value and must have the same protection. History is replete with examples of cultures and systems where the individual has had little or no dignity, and thus has become a victim of the ideas and expansionism of those who hold the reins of power. International human rights are a historic innovation, and the underlying principle is precisely the aim to protect the individual. Many will say that it is about time too, two thousand years after our era began.

The idea of universal human rights does not mean that all countries must develop equally and at the same pace. States have different historical, economic and political backgrounds and these will indicate a gradual development where cultural traditions are also taken into consideration. Some states have greater challenges than others, such as some countries in Asia and Africa. However, we should demand from the countries that are members of the UN and have undertaken to respect human rights that the goal is defined and the direction is set: Human rights will be realised. If the rights of people are undermined by the authorities, criticism is called for and is necessary. In the last 20 years, there has been a clear increase in the state support for human rights. Regardless of how much critics claim that human rights are not universal, it is a fact that today they have global support.


Human dignity in the centre


We can draw parallels between today's broad international support of human rights and John Rawls' idea of overlapping consensus. The point is that different ideologies, religions and moral systems may agree on the rights as the lowest common denominator of a political structure in a society. However, the consensus is not only political but also moral. The core is human dignity. Bearing this in mind, the states must recognise individuals as being of equal value and assign them the same rights and protection. Because the universal human rights do not have a political or religious foundation, they have greater practical influence than one particular religion, philosophy or moral system. Christians, Muslims, humanists, pragmatics, liberals, conservatives, Chinese, Americans and others can embrace the rights based on their own points of view. It is impossible to say, however, that human rights are compatible with all doctrines. Since human rights are founded on human dignity, totalitarian states and systems that grade people have no tolerance for them.2

What then is the meaning of the concept of human dignity? What makes it so fundamentally important for human rights? There are several answers to this question. Some people will claim that human beings share some fundamental qualities, whether these are the same intrinsic value, autonomy, reason or that we were are all created in God's image. Others view human dignity as basically declaratory and undefined. It is considered an axiom in the system, a familiar and accepted principle of a common moral which is accepted as a self-evident truth that cannot be proved. Human rights and human dignity may be said to be mutually constituent in today's modern world. When the demands for human rights result in legal and political practices, our ways of thinking are also developed. Our understanding of human dignity is influenced by international legislation and the practical policies of the states. Human rights are thus at the same time a moral vision and a means for achieving increasingly better lives.


Slowly but steadily forward


State authorities do not always do what is in the best interests of the population, and the international mechanisms for dealing with conflicts continue to be far too weak. If considered in a historical perspective, it is still clear that we are slowly but steadily moving forward. Activists in many countries have taken important initiatives in this development. Infant mortality rates are dropping each year and more children are growing into adulthood. The position of women has improved radically and extreme poverty has been cut in half in recent years. In developing countries, 90 per cent of all children are attending school, with almost the same number of girls as boys. Minorities are increasingly gaining better living conditions. The average life span today is twice what it was 200 years ago, even if the world's population has increased from one to seven billion. The explanation for this progress is found in scientific and technological innovations, but also in the way we organise our societies. Thus, the conclusion must be that human rights are easy to understand and complex at one and the same time. The idea is simple, the goal is magnificent, but the realisation of these rights is difficult. For us, individually, however, the most important knowledge is perhaps about human dignity and equal rights – core values that should point the way for how we act. If people are treated as if they have no dignity, their human rights are being violated, whether they are understood as legal norms or moral certitudes.


Author: Lillian Hjorth. (2015). Menneskerettigheter og aktivisme, Aktive Fredsforlag (translated by John Anthony)


1Jack Donnelly. (2013). Universal Human Rights. Third Edition. Cornwell University Press
2What some call the weakest link between human rights and moral theories is rather found to be a great advantage by Jack Donnelly. It makes it possible to deal with difficult issues of fairness and justice without taking a stance on complicated – and often impossible – discussions based on moral standpoints.

Lillian Hjorth, Director, Human Rights Academy (Norway):
Marit Langmyr, Project Manager, Human Rights Academy (Norway)

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