Revisiting the UDHR – Human Rights and Well-Being

Posted by on April 26, 2014 in Featured, Thoughts, Uncategorized | 0 comments



It was pointed out to me this weekend, albeit rather dismissively, that an earlier piece I wrote titled “Quantified Morality – Seeking Well-Being for All” neither delivered anything about ways to quantify well-being, nor did I understand what a human right was. I was rather miffed by this comment, but it did raise some questions in me about the nature of a “right”, how it is perceived, and what importance rights hold in the human world.

The first point, true in as much as this article didn’t answer that question, is only true when that article was read in isolation from the previous writings I had done about human well being (see them in order here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and a further post after, 9.) As you can see it’s not something I have written about on a whim, a lot of though has gone into these writings, and in a way they are interdependent, because this topic is broad and many-faceted, and deserves more than just one 1600 word snippet.

The second point, that I don’t understand what a right is, is interesting, because in the article I was citing passages from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Charter to illustrate points about the possibility of a base level of well-being, at a “rights” level, and how that might be measured (i.e. quantified). If the most comprehensive list of human rights as composed by an independent international body of experts has it wrong, then where, if at all, am I making my mistake?

The United Nations defines human rights as:

“…  rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.”

So the groundwork for human rights is pretty simple. Nobody should be given any preferential treatment, or be denied access to these rights based on “nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status“. This means equally that those in power have the same rights as the pauper on the streets, or the villagers in wartorn Afghanistan. This does not mean, however, that those who have money and power should be stripped of it, rather that they shouldn’t be given preferential treatment because of it.

While people’s rights are waved around like a flag, specifically by libertatians and right-wingers, the additional baggage that comes with a right is more often than not overlooked; with rights come obligations. The same page from the United Nations says of responsibilities:

“Human rights entail both rights and obligations. States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights. The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the individual level, while we are entitled our human rights, we should also respect the human rights of others.”

So many people who are adamant about their rights are unwilling to adhere to that last part of the statement, the “respect the human rights of others”, because it requires them to be mindful of what their actions might do to other people, and once they start digging and observing their actions, they see that these can have far-reaching consequences well beyond the view of their immediate sphere.

Take for example any product that causes harm to another individual. Shoes produced in sweatshops in Asia, constructed by children paid less than a dollar a day should be a concern of any person who lays claim to personal and human rights, yet so many that scream about infringements of their rights yell equally as loud that they should have access to said shoes. To willfully blinker oneself to that harm caused by supporting such an industry is extremely disingenuous, but for the rights-claimant, it’s far enough away that it falls into the basket of “not my problem”. It’s a matter of degrees, on the one hand the rights of many people are being infringed upon so that one individual in a developed nation can have the convenience and affordability of a mass-produced product, either for vanity or from peer pressure.

I realise the hypocrisy of my statements here; I sit typing on a laptop made in a production-line somewhere in China, where the workers were paid pittance to produce it, and yet I bang on about the degrees of human rights infringements. I have no doubt that without these factories something like this laptop would be too expensive for me to afford. But that’s not a right, it’s a side-effect of the privilege of my socioeconomic position in the world.

The original comment, claiming that I don’t know what rights are read in part:

“Freedom of speech is a right, as it requires not [sic] the participation of another to enact. Conversely, housing is not a right, food is not a right, healthcare is not a right, because if one is unwilling or unable to work for them, that then requires the forceful imposition on another to provide, although the pursuit of those things is a right.”

Freedom of speech is a right in as much as it’s specifically mentioned in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So this applies only so the rights of American citizens, and contrary to the beliefs of many Americans, American law and rights do not extend to other nations of the world (except for Americans traveling abroad to some extent). In Australia we don’t actually have a segment in our constitution which gives us the right to freedom of speech per se. Instead we have “implied freedom of expression” which has in many cases been upheld by law in court. Interestingly in recent Australian news, the Australian Attorney-General George Brandis made a public statement about wishing to repeal some parts of Australian law to better facilitate freedoms of speech, in particular a clause in the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, Section 18c, which reads in part:

“(1)  It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

(a)  the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b)  the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

The implications of repealing this part of the act would allow greater freedom of speech, but specifically for people in privileged positions (such as Mr Brandis’) to make discriminatory statements at the expense of others, and expect no backlash, a convenience, more than a right. But that’s another story and worthy of its own blog post.

So we see, while freedom of speech is a right in many respects, the obligation is on us to us this right with the full knowledge that our free expressions may harm others, and if so we must be aware that all people have the same right to criticise your actions. Freedom of speech is only a right in countries that make a specific point of making it so. It’s not inalienable, and is certainly not universal.

As for housing, food and healthcare, these are not rights either, unless a governing body specifically makes it so. What the UDHR does, instead of listing the rights and freedoms some of us are afforded, makes claim to the basics that all of us should be afforded in order to live in freedom, dignity, and to have the same quality of life as every other person regardless of race, religion, sex etc. Human rights are not libertarian in their essence. They are basic human needs which are to be met in order to create a safer and more equitable society on a world scale.

And while housing, food, healthcare are not rights per se, they are desirable qualities which will enable the needs and rights of individuals to be met more readily.

On the point that rights are only rights when they don’t infringe on others, or expect others to act in order to facilitate them, one has to remember that there is no point in a declaration of rights without a society upon which to enact it. It’s all part of the social contract, and unspoken list of rules we live by as a society, and if you’re unwilling to participate in that society, then your opinions about how that society work are null. The word “society” has at its root the meaning “companion”, and what is companionship without one looking out for another? The selfishness of the “me, now” generation becomes apparent when people start saying that they are not willing to help others in society because it might inconvenience them.

Rights, in general, are not universal. Nowhere in the UDHR does it mention the right to bear arms, yet the Second Amendment of the American Constitution makes it a right for American citizens. What the UDHR does is identify the needs of humanity in order that all people are given the same opportunities, dignities and respect. And that’s what striving for human well-being is all about, seeking a better world for us all.

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