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Human rights: Derivative of existence or law?

FOLLOWING the gross violation of human rights associated with the First and Second World War, its idea and language have become increasingly prominent, especially in public discourse. Over the years, individuals, groups, organisations and the world community at large have become increasingly aware of the importance of human rights. However, what has not become clear is what kinds of objects human rights are or what kinds of objects they are supposed to be; why people should have them and why we should believe that people have or should have them. In the light of this, this article seeks to address two challenges; to clarify the meaning and ground(s) of human rights and also to illuminate the role of law in human rights discourse.  Any philosophical investigation of human rights would often begin with the question: what are human rights? This question might possibly mean an analysis of the nature or ontology of human rights or a list of human rights and the values protected by them. According to Charles Beitz, “human rights are rights possessed by all human beings at all times and in all places simply in virtue of their humanity.”

This means that human rights are critical moral standards; ones that can be invoked as a basis for criticism of actually existing laws and social practices and that, at a minimum, all human beings are entitled to claim them. John Simmons describes human rights as “those natural rights that are innate and that cannot be lost that is, they cannot be given away, forfeited, or taken away.” Thus, human rights, will have the properties of universality, independence (from social or legal recognition), naturalness, inalienability, nonforfeitability, and imprescriptibility. John Tasioulas is also of the opinion that “human rights are moral standards—moral rights possessed by all human beings simply in virtue of their humanity—that may perform a plurality of political functions, but that none of these functions is definitive of their nature as human rights.” Human rights are therefore grounded in considerations that apply to all human beings regardless of their location, social and political relationships. Hence, human rights are first and foremost possessed by human beings and they should be seen as protection of our human standing, personhood, human worth and humanity.

Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work, the right to own properties, right to a private life and so on. However, as much as the notion of human rights has emerged as a ruling idea of our age, it has however been subjected to different distortions. For instance, some have claimed that “a human right is nothing more than any norm denominated as such in a formally valid legal source, such as an international treaty.” That is, human rights are standards that find their existence and expression primarily in the law and without the legal framework, they cease to exist. But is it the case that human rights find their justification primarily in the law? In response to this question, it is important to note that the term ‘human’ in ‘human rights’ necessarily presuppose that it refers to human beings that is, without human beings, we cannot have human rights. Thus, human rights are primarily associated with human beings. Proceeding from this, I believe that human beings have some unique characteristics which make up their essence. These characteristics which may include, but are not limited to, biology, rationality, self consciousness, language,  inter-personal relationship, e.t.c., are present in every human being. Thus, since every human being possesses these characteristics, it is safe to assume that all human beings constitute humanity as a whole.

Humanity in this sense refers to the human species that is, mankind as a whole, or sets of qualities which are used to define human nature or conditions. Having established the claim that human beings constitute humanity, I think that human beings have the duty to protect their humanity. That is, every human being has the obligation to protect his or her individual self and the other person in order to ensure their continued existence. If by any chance we fail to protect our humanity as a whole, then we have failed to protect ourselves.

The question then is, how can we protect our humanity? And why should we protect our humanity? I would say through the recognition, protection and enforcement of human rights. As stated earlier, human rights are moral standards possessed by all human beings simply in virtue of their humanity and that these rights should be seen as a form of protection of our personhood and humanity as they guarantee our continued existence. To illustrate the point we are trying to make, let us examine the mass killing of the Jews during the Second World War. About six million Jews were killed under the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler in Germany. The Nazis did not have regard for fundamental human rights especially the right to life and that was why they found it convenient to carry out the mass killing against the Jews. If such a great number of people met their untimely death as a result of lack of respect for human rights by a particular set of people,  then we can begin to imagine what would happen if everyone decides not to have regard for human rights.

If the United States decides not to have regard for human rights and consequently wipe out the Germans and then Russia decides to wipe out the Americans and China decides to wipe out Africans or if Mr Abu decides to kill Mrs Audu and Mr. Audu decides to kill Mr James and so on, I doubt that there would be anyone left in the world. Human rights are therefore means or medium that are adopted to protect our humanity primarily and to ensure our continued existence. The implication then is that if we fail to recognise, protect and enforce human rights, then, it simply means that the human race is not safe. However, we should know that it is not enough to point out the reasons for human rights, it is equally important that we examine ways by which human rights can be effectively protected and enforced.

The law which comprises of courts, legal systems, laws and conventions, treaties, judges, and lawyers has the responsibility to ensure that human rights do not just exist as an idea in our minds or on paper but that they become practical, effective and applicable. For this to happen, it is expected that some structures such as proper democratic governmental structures, independent judiciary, and the rule of law are firmly put in place and that the consciousness of the grounds, importance and implications of human rights are promoted. Legal institutions, social institutions, social media, religious institutions among other institutions have the responsibility to promote this consciousness in the society.  Thus, there is a need for us to know that the protection and enforcement of human rights is something we need to work hard to achieve, but it is worth every effort. Human rights serve our best interest and their protection is the protection of our humanity. It is therefore not a luxury but a necessity!

  • Oduola is a human rights activist




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