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15.1: What Human Rights?

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    Modern international human rights law has been in existence for the past 70 years; the concept dates back much further, to the humanist thinkers who provided the philosophical platform for the French revolution. Instrumental in the idea was the notion that certain basic needs of subsistence were shared by all human beings – bodily integrity, food, shelter, health care, and freedom – and should therefore have moral significance (Jones, 1999, p. 58; Alston & Goodman, 2013). The language of human rights is found in every society and embedded in every culture and religion because it is based on the fundamental principle of justice. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (UN, 1948), the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights constitute the backbone of international human rights law. ‘Human Rights’ is a buzzword that is often talked about but whose practical application remains a distant reality in many contexts and places. Many governments and non-state actors continue to pay lip service to the doctrine of human rights, exhorting one another to respect the rights of citizens whilst perpetuating structures and attitudes that jeopardise human rights or openly contradict them.

    Many conceptualisations of human security are founded on human rights. As was explained in Chapter 3, basic needs are classified in a hierarchy. The right to have one’s needs recognised applies mainly to the bottom levels of that hierarchy, namely survival needs and safety. The discussion of climate justice in Chapter 9 established that rights come from the application of the justice principle to any situation that involves potentially unequal risks or benefits from areas beyond an individual’s control. Human rights developed historically in three stages, each based on agreement on a set of basic needs. The first generation of human rights, formulated in the 18th century, was civil and political in nature and was based on the cardinal value of freedom. The second generation of human rights refer to economic and social priorities, based on the cardinal value of human equality. A third generation of rights has been formulated, as illustrated by the UN and numerous major NGOs focusing on the right of every global citizen to enjoy freedom from fear and freedom from wants (Annan, 2005; UN, 2000). They add to the list of human rights specified in the UDHR (UN, 1948).[2]

    In thirty articles, the UDHR specifies the human right to life, liberty, and security of person; to freedom from discrimination by race, creed, gender, and equality before the law and due process; to a fair and public hearing in case of criminal accusations; to be presumed innocent until proven guilty; to free association and nationality, to freedom of movement; to own property; to freedom of expression and of religion; to democratic choice of representation; to respect for human dignity; to work and to equal pay as well as to leisure; and to a basic humanistic education. Negative rights include freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. Article 29 recognises appropriate duties and limitations of the rights of the individual for the common good but it does not mention ecological limits.

    The third generation of rights consists again of negative rights, freedoms from certain undesirable states of being. Those freedoms are distinct from civil liberties and from the negative rights specified in the UDHR which both pertain to the functioning of civil society. They extend on the rights specified in Article 25 of the UDHR which refers to “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”. In terms of environmental security those freedoms amount to certain quality attributes pertaining to environmental support systems, sometimes referred to as ‘environmental rights’.

    The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (UN, 2009) referred to ‘environmental rights’ as the right to clean air, safe potable water, adequate nutrition, shelter, the safe processing of wastes, and adequate health care. The document revealed no awareness of ecological limits of any kind that might curtail the availability of those resources and services. Even the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UN, 2015) and the Agenda 2030 vision they promote leave unaddressed the question to what extent the rights of present-day humanity can be justifiably fulfilled while our present activities jeopardise the same rights for future generations. This question has been asked particularly in the context of the right to health care (Deckers, 2011; Jameton & Pierce, 2001). We will suggest that this question raises serious doubts about the validity of third generation human rights.

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