Philosophy Now  -
Question of the Month

What & Why Are Human Rights?


My suggestion published in Philosophy Now - Issue 137 - April/May 2020

Even where human rights conventions are incorporated into national law they’re easily ignored by dictators or by short-sighted electorates exercising their rights to vote for parties which consider rights to have gone too far. So unfortunately, the fight for international standards of behaviour is far from over. As a consequence, we have to be very careful how we frame the justification for human rights law. We should not play into the hands of those opposing human rights by our pretending that these rights have some (easily ridiculed) justification arising from nature, human or otherwise. We should instead be very clear that the need for such rights is a pragmatic response to the wish to avoid seeing a revival of the horrors of our past.

Sir Hersch Lauterpacht QC, British lawyer and a leading figure in the drive to create a post-war charter of human rights, based human rights on ‘natural law’. He wrote: “In a wider sense, the binding force… of international law… is based on the law of nature as expressive of the social nature of man.” However, the appalling conduct in Nazi Germany, which had driven so many to want to codify a set of human rights, is arguably just as expressive of ‘the social nature of man’ – one feeding off resentment. So we cannot rely on ‘natural law’ as justification for human rights.

The Nazi party had altered the law to enable their horrors to be carried out lawfully. And so, after WWII there was a desire to say that complying with the law of a state could not be used to justify barbaric acts. State law itself had to be judged against an internationally recognised standard, which defined the limits on state actions to try to prevent any repeat of those dreadful things. Their genesis means, however, that human rights are not really any different in kind to the other laws we choose to accept, although we may like to think otherwise. They do not have a sacred source, but are the expression of a wish for self-protection.

Paul Buckingham, Annecy

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy