Unit 1: A Human Rights Context for Global Justice
In this unit, we review human rights and justice from a global perspective. We discuss the rights vs. needs debate, three principal pairs of categorizations for human rights, and the potential for tensions. We explore three dichotomies or conflicts inherent to the concept of global justice: universal vs. relative rights, individual vs. collective rights, and civil and political rights vs. economic, social, and cultural rights.
We begin by considering a fundamental question: are human rights universal or relative (particular), in the abstract and practice? Many believe rights and justice are universal; despite cultural and socio-political variants, rights and justice do exist. Next, we turn to individual and collective rights. Finally, we study questions surrounding balance and integrating economic, social, and cultural rights with civil and political rights.
A conceptual framework for studying global justice emerges from our general understanding of political theory and philosophy. While definitions of justice are often ethnocentric, they can be pejorative and indicate a bifurcation of political thought. As we work through the readings, keep our central question of this course in mind: how do we define, understand, and uphold justice in a global and globalizing world?
Completing this unit should take you approximately 5 hours.
1.1: The Development of Human Rights: A Brief History
While many of the ideas central to today's human rights discourse have roots in the Enlightenment Era in Europe, the legal framework primarily used to discuss human rights only dates back to 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many of the rights enumerated in that document and other human rights treaties have at various points in history only been enjoyed by specific groups of people, such as property-owning white men. They have gradually been expanded to include more people, and activists are still working today to ensure all can enjoy human rights.
1.2: Universal vs. Relative Rights
The first of the human rights dichotomies, and perhaps the most contentious, encompasses two apparent competing notions of human rights: universality and relativism. Do rights apply to all humans all of the time without any conditions? Or are human rights, and by extension justice, to be understood as conditional? Should rights be understood as deriving from a particular set of circumstances such as nationality, citizenship, age, sex, gender, race, or cultural norms?
1.3: Individual vs. Collective Rights
The second of the human rights dichotomies is the dichotomy between individual and collective rights, which some refer to as group rights. Many of the rights outlined in the International Bill of Rights are individual rights, but some apply specifically to certain groups, such as indigenous tribes, women, children, or other minorities or marginalized groups. Others refer to the right to belong to a group or association like a political party, or a nationality and citizenship.
Individuals and groups' rights can sometimes conflict, creating tension and raising the question of which should be considered first and foremost. Is it ever justifiable to reduce individual liberty for the common good? Alternatively, how much potential harm to others must be allowed in society to protect individual liberty? Can these tensions be reconciled? What standards should be used to decide which rights to center in different situations?
Can you think of an example of when honoring collective rights might undermine individual rights? What about a situation where collective rights can strengthen individual rights? What groups in society do you think need extra protection, if any? Think also about how this dichotomy relates to the universal versus relative dichotomy discussed above. How are these issues related?
1.4: Civil and Political Rights vs. Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
Civil and political rights refer to issues of state sovereignty and individual and group rights of political participation. Economic, social, and cultural rights address the needs people must have fulfilled to live a free and dignified life. Civil and political rights are sometimes treated as more universal and integral to the fulfillment of human rights. At the same time, there is some debate over how governments must act to provide economic, social, and cultural rights. For example, one economic and social right is the right to an education.
In many states, this right is fulfilled through the existence of public schools that residents may attend free of cost. However, schools increasingly rely on the internet to communicate with students and families, and assignments often depend upon internet access for research purposes or to return homework to the teacher. Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 have increased this dependence on the internet for instruction. Does this mean people also have a right to internet access to enjoy their right to education meaningfully? Does that imply the government has a responsibility to provide the internet as a public utility to meet its citizens' right to education?
As you continue through this unit, consider what responsibilities these rights confer upon states. How does your society meet and support these rights, or how does it fall short? How important do you think these rights are to protecting human rights in general?
1.5: Justice and Human Rights
If we accept the idea that at least some human rights are universal, what obligations do states have to protect the rights of people in other countries? The responsibility to protect and the concept of humanitarian intervention are attempts to answer that question by providing a framework for when one state may need to intervene in another's domestic affairs in the name of justice and human rights.
Remember that the founding documents of modern human rights law grew out of the global response to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. Looking back at those events, leaders and activists began to wonder if and when it would have been possible and ethical for other countries to intervene in Germany's affairs. Since then, the United Nations and individual states have developed new ideas and arguments about how to address human rights abuses around the world.
These ideas are balanced against the concept of state sovereignty in international law and the fact that the United Nations charter says that the only time it is acceptable for one state to use force against another is in a case of self-defense, or when the Security Council has authorized the use of force in response to a threat to international peace and security. Most humanitarian interventions in history do not meet these thresholds.
Unit 1 Assessment
- Receive a grade