When was the last time you thought about human rights? Usually, human rights are “more honored in the breach than in the observance” – in other words, we mainly think about human rights when they are violated.
Unfortunately, the violation of human rights is not a issue that can be safely left in the past. Every day, we can hear derogatory words and observe cases of racism, nationalism, sexism, ageism, antisemitism, and other “-isms”, and “-phobias” (such as xenophobia and Islamophobia) leading to prejudice and discrimination. The consequences can be drastic: direct or indirect aggression, inhumane treatment, psychological and physical violence, torture, rape, homicide, and even genocide. However, human rights law goes beyond the direct mistreatment of human beings, covering rights such as the right to a clean environment, to property, to education, to participate in the political life of one’s country. These rights, together with many other seemingly indirect rights, are considered to be fundamental human rights, together with every human being’s right to life, liberty and security.
When we read or hear about a violation of human rights, or even personally observe it, we may ask ourselves, “Where is the international community? Where is international law, and the protection of human rights?”
Firstly, it is important to understand that international human rights law is quite a young subject. The first steps towards the recognition and definition of human rights were taken shortly after World War II, but the drafting of important international human rights treaties did not start until the late 1960s, two decades later. Moreover, the International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was not adopted until 2007. How many other human rights issues are now at a similar stage of development?
Secondly, the international community is still in a state of transition towards becoming a community governed by the rule of law. This is due to the fragmented international law system and the diverse geopolitical backgrounds and interests of different countries, as well as their economic and social developments. Different approaches have been followed, with a great deal of trial and error.
Thirdly, although the international community (and the individual states themselves) agree to undertake positive obligations (as expressly stated in the European Convention on Human Rights) towards their citizens and residents, these undertakings are not always followed. These positive obligations include the requirement to protect human rights and freedoms, and to provide all related measures for their existence and normal functioning within the state.
Unfortunately, war did not end with World War II. Across the world, armed conflict continues to destroy human lives and human creativity, while devastating the natural world. When we do not witness such conflicts directly, it is an indictment of our lack of awareness, insufficient media coverage and inadequate policies from states and international organizations. And when we do observe international conflicts, it becomes impossible to avoid propaganda, cliches, or naming one side “bad” and another “good”.
Moreover, when following developments between or among states, it is hard not to fall into a pessimistic mood: “It is all senseless, and we hardly achieve the recognition, respect and
protection of human rights nowadays.” I hear this sentiment – or similar wordings – from my students from time to time. But one should never forget the role of human rights (even when they are invisible) in our society, as well as the influence that public opinion can have on the political strategies (and consequently legal strategies) of a country, or of the international community as a whole.
Studying at a university with such an international background as ours gives us unparalleled opportunities to apply critical thinking to received information. No less importantly, it empowers us to consider and remember our positive duties towards each other.
Some people associate the concept of positive duties with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and his famous imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Others develop such ideas to formulate their own concepts. The American philosopher Alan Gewirth created an imperative binding those who have the freedom and well-being to assist people of the same constitution, and to demand such positive duty (or even a “human right”) back. Gewirth’s concept, although controversial, is reflected by the positive obligation of the states and can be found in both the European Convention on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
But what are positive duties? Positive duties are duties which are not ordered by the law and for which you will not be punished by the law if you do not fulfil them, but which we can all follow with good faith and intent. Positive duties require us to act in a specific manner, usually with the intention of helping others. For example, imagine that you see a person in the street who has fallen, and you decide to help. If you do not help, the law will not punish you, so you have no legal obligation, but you might have a moral obligation. You intend to help another human being, and you do it. Why it is not a legal obligation to help others, if doing so is a moral act which maintains the balance in society? Well, because things are never as simple as they might seem at first sight. Even with the best intentions, this type of “unrequested help” is the invasion of a person’s freedom. Moreover, no one can oblige you to do everything, as that would deprive you of your freedom of choice (“to help or not to help?”) and capacity (why should you be obliged to help someone when you have different priorities). These choices are not easy, and everyone must choose their own path.
It is easy for anyone to become either a violator of human rights, or a person whose human rights have been violated. It is easy to fall into such a faction or relationship by not caring, not knowing, not being aware or even self-aware. Thus, we need to start with self-awareness and educate ourselves on the factual and emotional aspects, paying attention and taking a rational approach. The abuse of power-control relations is simply a matter of time: it begins once we stop caring, once we lose our compassion for other human beings.
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