The belief that everyone, by virtue of her or his humanity, is entitled to certain human rights is fairly new. Its roots, however, lie in earlier tradition and documents of many cultures; it took the catalyst of World War II to propel human rights onto the global stage and into the global conscience.
Throughout much of history, people acquired rights and responsibilities through their membership in a group – a family, indigenous nation, religion, class, community, or state. Most societies have had traditions similar to the “golden rule” of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The idea of human rights emerged stronger after World War II. The extermination by Nazi Germany of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani (gypsies), homosexuals, and persons with disabilities horrified the world. Trials were held in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, and officials from the defeated countries were punished for committing war crimes, “crimes against peace,” and “crimes against humanity.”
Governments then committed themselves to establishing the United Nations, with the primary goal of bolstering international peace and preventing conflict. People wanted to ensure that never again would anyone be unjustly denied life, freedom, food, shelter, and nationality.
Member states of the United Nations pledged to promote respect for the human rights of all. On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the 56 members of the United Nations.
The notion of Human Rights has changed the way states can be seen. Traditionally states were perceived just like big people: it was believed that what is true for human conduct is roughly true for state conduct, too. The problem with that paradigm is that although we talk about states as unitary actors – Russia decided to do this, America did that – while states are actually made up of individual persons, each of whom have their own rights and identity.
As David Rodin says, “When you start thinking about things in terms of human rights, it’s a completely different way of thinking about values and ethics. In the old tradition of the ethics of war, chivalry was central. The idea was that you would show restrain [towards civilians] in your military action because you were a great and noble warrior… but it was very much about your own virtue. To think about things from the perspective of human rights is to completely invert that relationship, because what you do is place the person affected at the very centre of the view.”
According to the new paradigm, civilians and enemy combatants are recognised as rights-bearers, who can hold soldiers to account if they fail in their duty to respect those rights. As David Rodin says, “Simply being a member of the armed forces does not absolve you of responsibility for the actions you are taking, for killing in war and for ensuring that violence is directed only at those who are morally liable for it.”
According to that paradigm, only people possess a right to self-defence, because only people have a life to lose. War isn’t a battle of leviathans, where each state stakes its rightful claims. Rather, war is a multitude of human rights violations, committed by and against individual people, each violation triggering each victim’s right to self-defence.
In a world organised around the idea of state sovereignty, where states were believed to possess the right to be free from foreign interference, humanitarian intervention was something of a contradiction. Yet if we think first and foremost about the basic rights of humans rather than states, as Rodin suggests, then this conflict dissolves. Instead, we see that states have a responsibility to protect the rights of people, both their own citizens (in the case of self-defence) and the citizens of other states (humanitarian intervention)… And if citizens and officials can’t or won’t protect the rights of people within their own borders, then the responsibility to intervene falls upon the international community: the citizens and officials of other nations.
Is war then a necessary evil in the protection of human rights? How do you fight justly in a war given you have to fight in some kind of way? Should the universal costs of the war be comparable to the universal benefits of the war?
While allowing us to look at a war from a different perspective, Human Rights paradigm still has lots of unanswered questions and it is hard to say at this stage whether this paradigm will turn out to be a mere utopian concept or whether it will help to bring stability and peace to all humankind. I want to believe like David Rodin that it will help to effectively reduce or even eliminate the armed conflict. I wish so much it will…
- Short History of Human Rights
- The Ethics of War: Shared Problems in Different Traditions, (Rodin, David and Sorabji, Richard, Eds.), Ashgate, London, November 2005
- “The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History” by Samuel Moyn