If you go out to the streets and ask different people what it means to have human rights, you are likely to get a wide range of answers. Human rights are defined as “rights that belong to an individual as a consequence of being human” (“Human Rights”). This concept is founded on the principle that all humans are free to enjoy their rights without being discriminated.
What makes human rights different from other types of rights is the notion that they are universal, inalienable, uniformly applicable and inherent to all. Human rights are, therefore, taken to mean inalienable, essential and universal rights, which everyone is intrinsically entitled to just by being human. They are universal because everybody possesses the same rights at birth. These rights apply to each person without considering their residential, sexual, ethnic, cultural or economic affiliation.
Over several centuries, governments and non-governmental institutions have made great advancements in the quest to ensure that every human being enjoys these rights. However, there are several situations where people are denied these rights by society and even the law. Some of these cases are justified by the fact that the perception of human rights varies from culture to culture.
In addition, some governments curtail the rights and freedom of their citizens on grounds of national security. Is this inalienability absolute or is it relative to different situations? This essay looks at the concept of ‘human rights’ and the universality of the term as well as the ambiguities involved.
If it is true to say that human rights are those rights that human beings enjoy just by being human, then it can be deduced that all humans must enjoy them. No one can be disqualified from being human based on their gender, sexual preference, cultural background or religion. If this is true, then universality of human rights demands that all humans enjoy uncompromised access to their rights.
Closely connected to universality is the view of equality that all humans are born equal with the same rights and dignity. This means that a citizen of Zambia is entitled to the same rights as a citizen of Canada. Going by this, human rights ought not to be withdrawn, changed, modified or abridged since they are inherent and essential.
One of the challenges to the universal application of the concept of human rights is cultural diversity in different countries. Different parts of the globe witness varying degrees of violation of human rights. Though all humans are free and equal at birth, universality requires that human rights should be enjoyed by all people throughout their lives. Most of the laid down guidelines for different nations are shaped by the values and practices of that society or region.
Consequently, it is very hard to formulate a universal definition of the concept of human rights that applies across all countries and cultures. In North Korea, for instance, the government is absolutely totalitarian and what it decides cannot be disputed. In such a country, freedom of speech and expression are curtailed, and basic human rights are violated. Citizens who speak against government oppression are brutally murdered. In such a government, the concept of human rights is as laid down by the authority.
Sexual orientation is another controversial issue. Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals are not clearly mentioned in any of the major legislation on international human rights. However, this does not mean that they are less human. They should be allowed room to enjoy their fundamental human rights without prejudice.
Gay relationships are treated scornfully by society with most governments failing to recognize their marriages as legal unions. In some countries, these relationships are the target of media scrutiny and social maltreatment. Without proper legislation in place to defend the rights of these marginalized groups, we cannot claim that human rights are universal and inalienable.
Inalienability is a term that refers to something that cannot be given away or sold. To alienate means to sell or to separate. Therefore, to describe human rights as inalienable means that they cannot be separated or taken away from the individual. The government should not take away or cause a person to part with his human rights under any circumstances.
The responsibility to protect human rights lies with the individual states (Doebbler 6). There are, however, some scenarios where the state is justified in limiting the freedom and rights of any of its citizens. As outlined in the constitution, human rights are meant to be supreme and not watered-down.
However, using terminologies such as ‘the greater good,’ the judicial arm of the government can restrict the rights of an individual or group. In such situations, the rights of an individual can be taken away if he poses a threat to other persons or to the state.
When dealing with a terrorist for instance, the government can withdraw the rights and liberties that the suspect enjoys in order to avert potential harm to other people. Security agents can justify the use of force to extract information about a potential threat from a suspected terrorist. Though the agents recognize that this suspect is a human being entitled to fundamental and universal rights, the threat he poses to other people overrides the claim he holds to such rights and liberties.
The military is another place where the rights and liberties of the individual are secondary to the responsibility to authority and duty. Soldiers take orders and act as a unit and not as individuals. This is intended to instill discipline for the greater good of the unit. Such cases show that human rights are not absolutely inalienable and can be with withdrawn.
The concept of human rights is a reasonably modern one and has managed to gain considerable attention from many quarters and stakeholders. There exist various positions on the definition of human rights. Although there are different opinions about what should make up the corpus of human rights, most people posit that every human being is in the least entitled to most fundamental rights. Though observation of human rights is very important, not every person in the world gets to enjoy these rights.
In conclusion, the notion of human rights ought to take into account certain rights such as people’s right to think freely and choose leaders without coercion. It must also include the right to food and water. Without these entitlements, it is virtually impossible to claim the universality and inalienability of human rights. It is my hope that the current and future generations can work together to realize a society where everyone enjoys basic human rights.
Doebbler, Curtis, F. J. Introduction to International Human Rights Law, Washington DC, USA: CD Publishing, 2006. Print.
“Human Rights.” Merriam-Webster Online. n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/human%20rights>.