THE BLOG

Why Are Human Rights Difficult?

13/05/2013 00:00 BST | Updated 09/07/2013 10:12 BST
AP

It is often said (and even more often suggested) that human rights are difficult because there are bad people who don't want to respect them, or even aim to violate them. This is sometimes true, but anyone who takes human rights seriously needs to take account of deeper and less dramatic reasons why human rights are persistently difficult, even if there are no villains in the picture.

One obvious fact that makes human rights difficult is that there are lots of them. Consequently none of them can be unconditional or absolute. We have to find consistent ways of implementing the whole lot. How and why may we curtail one right so as to respect and protect others? Where should we draw a line between rights to freedom of expression and rights to privacy? What is the best way to combine rights to life, liberty and security for all with rights to fair trials for those accused of endangering others' life, liberty and security?

The need to adjust each human right to all the others isn't, however, the only thing that makes human rights hard. Having worked out how to adjust different rights to one another, we still need to work out who should carry the duties they imply: who ought to do what for whom? Rights without duties we are no more than rhetoric and gesture: but working out what the corresponding duties require of whom can be hard.

In the case of liberty rights, things are relatively straightforward. Liberties are incomplete unless everyone else has a duty to respect them. Your right to freedom of expression will be incomplete and vulnerable unless everyone else has a duty not to censor, silence or gag you. Yet even liberty rights are fragile without institutions to ensure that people actually meet rather than flout their duties: so many but not all of the duties that correspond to liberty rights are indeed universal, but duties to enforce standards and protect rights are neither universal nor 'merely' negative. Liberties are vulnerable without robust laws and institutions that protect them.

Things are more complex in the case of rights to goods or services--rights to food or to health care, for example. These duties must be carried by some rather than others: it is literally impossible for everyone to feed each hungry person or to look after each person who is ill. Unless duties to provide food or health care are allocated, moreover allocated effectively to those who can actually discharge them, rights will be ignored or violated--or both. Allocating duties to provide goods and services is a hugely demanding task, and mere assertions that duties should be allocated by states is at most a first step towards an adequate account of what is actually needed to make rights to goods or services real, let alone secure.

Even if we can provide an adequate and consistent account of human rights, and can allocate the corresponding duties to people and institutions with the capacity to discharge them, human rights will still be hard. This is because all of the individuals and institutions to whom duties are allocated have limited powers and competence, and many other demands on their time and resources. Rights to freedom of expression or association will only be secure if there are institutions with genuine capacities to ensure that everyone respects these liberties. Rights to goods and services will only be secure if those to whom the corresponding duties are allocated have the capacities and resources to meet other's needs.

We do not take human rights seriously by paying lip service to admirable but abstract standards, or even by formulating or agreeing on a coherent interpretation of the full range of human rights standards. We take rights seriously only if we take the corresponding duties seriously, and we take the duties seriously only if we take a realistic view of the capacities of those who are to carry the duties and thereby respect and protect others' rights. This means that we have to recognise where and why capacities to carry the duties that rights demand are fragile or overburdened. Genuine concern for human rights is not shown by parading our idealism and ignoring the real burdens on those who are to respect and protect others' rights. Some of the enemies of human rights are no doubt villains who are eager to violate or ignore others' rights. But others are idealists and enthusiasts who pay ample lip service to human rights standards, yet overlook, ignore or trivialise the real demands of meeting these standards.

Onora O'Neill will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org