The Grounds of Human Rights
27 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2011 Last revised: 10 Mar 2020
Date Written: April 28, 2011
“All members of the human family . . . should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” So says Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). But WHY: What reason or reasons do we - “all members of the human family” - have for “act[ing] towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”?
A principal way for us to “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” is for us to try to get not just our own government but every government to treat its citizens and others with whom it deals “in a spirit of brotherhood”. What reason or reasons do we have for trying to do that - in particular, for trying to get certain rights against government established and protected? In particular: What reason or reasons do we, the citizens of one country, have for making it our business how the government of every other country treats its citizens and others?
Before the Second World War, it was no part of the proper business of the government of one country, insofar as international law was concerned, how the government of another country treated its citizens: "Until World War II, most legal scholars and governments affirmed the general proposition, albeit not in so many words, that international law did not impede the natural right of each equal sovereign to be monstrous to his or her subjects." Today, by contrast, it is a matter of international concern - as the UDHR, many human rights treaties, regional as well as international, and the recent emergence of the International Criminal Court all make abundantly clear - that no government treat its citizens, or any other human beings with whom it deals, “monstrously”.
We obviously have good reason to concern ourselves with how our own government treats us, its citizens. But what reason or reasons warrant our concern that no government abuse its citizens or others with whom it deals; what reason or reasons warrant our trying to get every government to treat its citizens and others with whom it deals “in a spirit of brotherhood”? In particular, what reason or reasons do we have for trying to get certain rights against government - every government - established and protected?
This paper is a draft of a chapter of a book-in-progress: an introduction to, and overview of, the morality and law of international human rights. For a related paper (chapter), which I am posting to SSRN at the same time I am posting this paper, see “What Is a ‘Human Right’?”, https://ssrn.com/abstract=1824662.
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