One thing that always strikes me about discussions on human rights is how the lines end up being drawn. Why, for instance, is it widely considered a violation of human rights for African tribes-people to mutilate the genitals of their young girls but it is ok for affluent white people to do similar things to young boys, sometimes even for simply aesthetic reasons? If everyone has the right to participate in free elections, why can some people not vote until they are 20 (Japan) but others can vote at 16 (Isle of Man) – are Japanese teenagers having their human rights violated for 4 years? Why do some countries have freedom of expression/speech laws but ban hate speech – who gives the government the right to define what is hate speech and what isn’t? Answering these kind of questions is vital if you want to create some sort of absolute standard of human rights, which organisations like Amnesty International clearly do. Not tackling them just leaves the door wide open for cultural relativist defences of horrible acts, and undermines moral legitimacy. If you can’t define what you are defending then how can you defend it?
Other aspects of human rights are tricky too – Article 23(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: “Everyone has 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, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Ignoring the sexist language, what is a standard of living adequate for health and well-being? What if you can’t afford to heat your house in winter, should the government pay? Probably, but would they? Probably not.
Discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on is widely regarded to be wrong, with good reason. But what about discrimination on the grounds of intelligence? Have a look at the Wikipedia discussion of social outcomes related to IQ scores and consider the fact that people have as much control over being smart as they do over being black, or a woman. Yet good luck finding any broad debate about ways to ensure unintelligent people aren’t discriminated against!
And don’t bother asking the UN’s Human Rights Council about these problems – despite being “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and mak(ing) recommendations on them” current membership includes such bastions of human rights protection as Saudi Arabia and China. Obviously they have some tricky grey areas of their own.