What are Human Rights Violations?
A Problem of Definition
Once we fully appreciate what human rights are, we can understand what counts as a violation of them. We can, for example, turn to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated in 1948, and read a whole list of rights of individuals that governments are urged not to violate.
We would then get the impression that, in the words of the preamble to the Declaration, human rights are wholly to do with protecting the individual against the “tyranny and oppression” of governments. However, the point being made here is that, without such an agreed statement of rights, individuals might otherwise be forced to rebel against their oppressors.
We have seen a great deal of rebellion in recent years, and I would suggest that human rights violations are perpetrated by many people other than governments. When a Palestinian mother dies in childbirth, along with her child, because roadblocks and diversions prevented her from reaching a hospital in time, we may well see this as a violation of her human rights. But we must also condemn the actions of those whose send rockets into civilian areas of Israeli towns, for the same reasons. Terrorists breach human rights when they seek to defend them by violent acts.
Seeking to define human rights, and thereby what constitutes a violation, can lead us into all sorts of trouble. We have words that sound fine and noble, such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (or “life, liberty, and the security of person” in the UDHR) but then we have to accept that there are exceptions. For example, what happens when one person’s “pursuit of happiness” conflicts with another’s?
When a criminal act is committed, we happily deprive a person of their liberty. In some jurisdictions, a criminal’s life can be forfeited. Have their human rights been violated? Does it matter if they have, because their actions have deserved that forfeiture? The UDHR condemns torture. Is that torture in all circumstances, or are there occasions when it is justified? Some people would say yes, others no. These are indeed murky waters.
Do We Need a New Definition?
Perhaps we need to define human rights differently, as opposed to specifying rights and condemning their violations. Maybe Alexander Hamilton was right, back in 1789, to warn against listing rights, on the grounds that anything not on the list would be regarded as actions that could be taken with impunity by an oppressor.
I would suggest that Person A violates the human rights of Person B when A treats B as being less worthy of respect than himself or herself. This covers not only governments and terrorists, but also every single one of us. You abuse the rights of another when your behaviour towards them depends not on WHO they are, or what they have done, but on WHAT they are.
This covers all the “isms”; racism, sexism, ageism, and the rest. It covers discrimination against people because they are disabled, or gay, or of a different religion, or left-handed (I put that last one in just to cover myself!). When we regard someone else as being less worthy than ourselves, we see them as being less deserving of our attention, and, in a sense, less human.
If we regard the “other” as being less deserving of the rights that we claim for ourselves, we run the risk of abusing that person, and thus violating their rights.
Therefore, the men in Iran who are hanged for being gay, the women in Africa who are genitally mutilated, the prisoners in many countries who are held in foul conditions for months or years without trial, the protesters in Tibet who are beaten and shot, the voters in Zimbabwe whose ballots are not counted, are all victims of human rights violations.
But so is the black man who is the target of a racist joke. So is the disabled person who cannot get into a shop because there is no wheelchair access. So is the woman who is paid less than a man who is doing the same job. So are the lesbian couple who are not allowed to adopt a child.
Yes, I would certainly agree that some human rights violations are far worse than others. But I would argue that if each of us were to look at ourselves and ask if we are ever guilty of abusing the right of others, even if in only a minor way, we will at least make a step in the right direction of stopping the major abuses from taking place.