A Critical Analysis Of Human Rights: How Human Is Human Rights?



Human rights discourse has given voice to voiceless, empowering weak and vulnerable to fight for their rights around the world, however, there have been cases of misuse of human rights discourse by some powerful nations especially the West. For international politics as a discipline, the language of human rights has become increasingly important both in academic debate and political decision making (Hannam, p. 115, 2008). The nature of human rights discourse enjoys support from various groups across the world, yet it is also the object of suspicion and moral imperialism. This is largely due to concerns about Western hypocrisy, especially in societies that were ruled by colonial powers by the West.

Questions raised in this article are of immediate relevance to international politics, as human rights are increasingly ‘mainstreamed’ into the policy framework of states (Ignatieff, p.22, 2001). This article will critically reflect over the dual nature and double standard of human rights deployed by some western nations in the strategic use of human rights discourse. This article will also critically analyse foundational weakness of human rights concepts, followed by the reflections on the moral legitimacy of the war.

Human rights as a modern discourse of rights has spread globally- have empowered many people and voiceless souls against the atrocities of ruling class, on the other hand, human rights also have been considered by some a tool of Western nations to interfere into the domestic affairs of some nations to serve the economic and political interest.

Complicated nature of Human rights-

The French declaration initiated a trend by proclaiming (classical tradition of natural law and the modern tradition of natural and human rights) rights as ‘natural, inalienable and sacred’, followed by the American Declaration of Independence, according to which “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable Rights”-this statement found expression in Article I of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, on the one hand, scholars such as Douzinas (2000, p, 11) consider this ‘rather extreme statements which present natural and human rights as a direct continuation of the classical law tradition, on the other hands, liberal scholars such as Alan Gewirth thinks that all human beings, by virtue of their humanity, recognize in themselves and others whereas Jack Donnely consider human rights are of universal character that makes them applicable to all societies (cited in Douzinas, 2000, p.14).

With passing times, this crisis has become more complicated particularly when universalistic notions of human rights challenged the regional and cultural particularities. In this context- Upendra Baxi (2009, p.175) has showed his concerned over “the overproduction of human rights standards and norms.’For, John Tasioulas (2003, p.1) “human rights is ethical lingua franka that has fueled an unruly proliferation of incompatible or incredible rights claims.”

Nonetheless, some religious and liberal philosophers emphasize need to theoretically grounding human rights for achieving political or legal consensus for them. ‘Postmodern’ thinkers, however, take an anti-foundationalist approach, undercutting the supposedly firm grounds on which the idea of human rights rests, by challenging some of its main elements, such as universality and absoluteness (Arslan, 1999 cited in Hardwick, 2012).

  1. Ethical consideration of Human rights and double standard

The combination of emotional appeal and lack of conceptual clarity makes human rights immensely effective as a rhetorical tool, especially arguments that are, if only in a rhetorical sense, grounded in ethical considerations of human rights. And these ethical considerations in some cases have led the double use of Human rights.

Double use of human rights in international relations and hypocrisy surrounding great powers has marred the efficacy of human rights discourse and blunt human rights real goal for human empowerment such as Iraq aggression by US, and NATO, democracies supervised by armed forces. It would be interesting to note, since 1991, the right to humanitarian intervention has been asserted by governments seeking to justify interventions in Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In the past decade, the notion that human rights can be used as a rhetorical tool has been illustrated in speeches made by George W. Bush and Tony Blair in relation to the War on Terror. Clinton, Bush and Shoreder, despite their political differences, claimed to be united for the sake of ethically/morally informed international relations (Douzinas, 2000, p.126).

Some Western nations consider it is rational to justify use of force to protect moral values- driving their inspiration from Kant who said, it is rational to be moral (cited in Richard Rorty1993, p.245). Many people view human rights as a set of moral principles that apply to everyone. But, Douzina thinks that moral claim is either fraudulent or naive.

However, Baxi (2009, p.176) has warned us against the dangers of assuming that the language of human rights are the only the very best moral languages we have” typically mediated through authoritative authorities where voices of common people and social movement is churned under the grid of power. In line with this thought, Goodale (2013, p.422) consider human rights as a moral agency- is not without its hazard.

Nevertheless, human rights still, is one of the most powerful tool/language available to human agency to struggle against injustice particularly relevant in the despotic regions of the world. Human rights are minimum standards allow all people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice, and peace irrespective of their race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. In addition, Human rights have been considered necessary for total development of individuals and communities. All nations have moral and legal (UN. Members) commitment to protect, respect and promote human rights, not just its citizen but also other human being living within its territory. Human rights are also part of international law, contained in treaties and declarations that spell out specific rights that countries are required to uphold. Countries often incorporate human rights in their own national, state, and local laws.

Human rights may be considered an example of what Gallie (pp. 167-198, 1956) termed ‘an essentially contested concept’. No wonder many scholars have questioned moral foundation of human rights.

  1. Foundational weakness

Few scholars have critiqued metaphysical and moral foundation of human rights. Amy gutmann (2001, p.10) has questioned abstract nature of moral concept of human agency, dignity and natural law. Due to its vagueness, these ideas are tend to be inconsistently explained and open for wide interpretation. It is well known, power to interpret human rights is privilege of only handful of states in the Western world, and the United States occupies a unique position in this respect.

Further, Amy (p.10, 2001) argue that if human rights necessarily rest on a moral or metaphysical foundation, then, is not in any meaningful sense universal or publically defensible in international arena. Jahern (2013) concern that a universal language of human rights is vulnerable to rhetorical abuse.

Interestingly, Western nations being a morally homogenous identity (as a group) have mostly (to certain extent) inspired from the values driving from Renaissance, propagating and promulgating these moral values in the form of human rights. Thus, those values different from Western moral values in some cases (arrange marriage system in Hindus, situation of women in Islam) are considered as an outsider, strange, medieval thus some cultural traditions may appear as a human rights abuse- if framed in western human rights language.

However, on the other hand, some Asian and Islamic scholars have found expression of human rights values in their respective cultures. Code of Hammuravi and edicts of King Ashoka of India is such example. Cairo Declaration of Human Rights is also an example of Islamic interpretation of Human rights. Thus, it’s difficult to make point that human rights is absolutely western centric, however, when it comes to interpret UN human rights conventions, it is mostly Western nations who call the shots especially the U.S. Michael Ignatieff (2001, p.21) argued that human rights is nothing other than a politics, one that must reconcile moral end to concrete situation.

In scathing attack on human rights discourse, Burks believe that no general rights exits; if they do they do not have value. Further, Burk (cited in Douzinas, 2000, p.155) express, “the rationalism and abstraction of rights turns them into absolute moral principles, equally applicable against old and benevolent governments as well as the “most violent tyranny”. Douzinas (2000, p.152) also thinks that rationalism of rights discourse makes their formulations so abstract and general as to render them unreal and unrealizable. On the same note Burke says, these rights are extreme, against them “no agreement is binding.”

Interestingly, above quoted remarks by Burk, is reflected in the binding UN Covenants which supersede all other treaties any states have. On the other hand, the United Nations mechanism, sometimes, also is used by the West to achieve its economic interest. Western dominance is reflected in human rights council (HRC) where Saudi Arab (a human rights violator nation in every sense) has been elected (in 2015) in Human rights council, with support from western block in the UN[1]. Thus, legally justifying dubious human rights credentials of Saudi Arab has been moralized to the world community.

Given below are some examples of double standards of human rights politics-

No resolutions in Human rights Council has been passed criticizing Chinese human rights record, simply because China use trade deals to avoid international opprobrium (Alston, 1999, cited in Douzinas P.125). British government sold fighter plans to genocidal Indonesian regime of President Suharto-who killed half a million East Timorese. America, a moral custodian and human rights protector have not ratified the Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC) and the UN Convention on the Economic and Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

  1. The moral legitimacy of war

Wars have been invoked in the name of “morally right” actions- actions which have become morally wrong.  How can bombing of Iraq, Operation Desert Fox, and ten years of prolonged sanctions, mismanagement of food and medical supplies (in Iraq) been justified in the name of war emanating to protect the morality? The willingness of Western powers to use force for apparently moral purposes has become central feature of the post-Cold war settlement (Douzinas, 2000, p.131). In Kosovo, where first war officially conducted to protect human rights, Tony Blair called it ‘just war’ promoting doctrine of intervention based on values, while Robin Cook declared that NATO was a ‘humanitarian alliance.’

But the question is as Douzinas put forward that who authorizes to enforce discourse of the universal human rights?  Whatever actions, either the “just war” or trade restrictions- it’s all occurs within the discourse of human rights. Human rights discourse which is dominated by the West- it could be challenging to find the voices of the subaltern nations such as, third world countries.

Conversely, some prominent scholars believe that human rights imposes a moral constraints on individuals and institutions- morally forces the relevant stakeholders to act to protect human rights. Thomas Pogge (1995) approaches to human rights as a “special class of moral concern.” He considers that human rights create moral constraints upon human conduct, practice and institutions. Furthermore, human rights employed as a moral imperative to the governments-who must protect the rights of its people.


On the one hand, human rights have become an effective tool to protect human agency, have empowered millions of peoples globally in the access to justice, and made- nations rich or poor- legally and morally accountable for the violations of human rights. However, on the other hand, foundational weakness of human rights have marred its efficacy and, have led to double use of human rights discourse by some powerful Western nations, whose actions are sometime driven by economic and military interest. Moral legitimacy of war also has been justified in the name of human rights protection. Thus, moral has become much political. Nonetheless, prominent scholars such as Pogge (p.203) believe that human rights generate negative moral duty in situation where social order restrict access to human rights realization.

The power to interpret and shape understanding of human rights as a concept, and passing judgment on the human rights record of other state still mostly lies in the hand of powerful Western nations. Moreover, human rights- as a principal of liberation and energy of vulnerables, have become a political weapon.

This article has examined relevant human rights concepts and examples of human rights double standard. I have argued that moral premise of human rights is flawed. Finally, article has critically analyzed the moral foundation of human rights and moral legitimacy of War. Article  concluded that moral foundation of human rights is problematic and human rights is indeed being employed for political and economic gains.

Amit Singh is a  Phd. candidate in Human rights, University of Coimbra


Baxi, U (2009) Voices of Suffering and the future of human rights in Human Rights, Southern Voices (edited by Twining, W) Cambridge University Press, New York

Douzinas, C (2000) The Triumph of Humanity: From 1789 to 1989 and from Natural to Human Rights in The End of Human Rights Critical Legal Thought at The Turn of the Century, Oxford Press, Belgium

Derida, J (1994) Wears and Tears (Tableau of an Ageless World) The Philosophy of Human Rights (edited by Hayden, P) Paragon House, St. Paul

Gallie, B. (1956) ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, pp. 167-198.

Gooddale, M (2013) Human Rights and Moral agency in (edt by Holder and Reidy) Human Rights the Hard Questions, Cambridge Press, United Kingdom

Hannam, M. ‘On Human Rights’, Democratiya, 15 (2008), pp. 115-122.

Ignatieff, M (2001) Human Rights as Idolatry in Human Rights as politics and Idolatry (edited by Gutmann, A) Princeton University Press, New Jersey

Pogge, T (1995) How Human Rights Be Conceived in The Philosophy of Human Rights (edited by Hayden, P) Paragon House, St. Paul

Rorty, R (1993) Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality in The Philosophy of Human Rights (edited by Hayden, P) Paragon House, St. Paul

Spivak, G (1988)   Can the Subaltern Speak?  Accessed at http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf

Tasioulas, J (2003) The Moral Reality of Human Rights, UNESCO Poverty project, “Ethical and Human Rights, Dimensions of Poverty” Towards a New Paradigm in the Fight Against Poverty, Philosophy seminar, Oxford

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/29/uk-and-saudi-arabia-in-secret-deal-over-human-rights-council-place


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