Michael Freeman, author of a new second edition of Human Rights, looks at the boundaries of the concept.
The practice and academic study of human rights have been dominated by lawyers. Respect for human rights depends on the rule of law and thus lawyers have contributed, and continue to contribute, much to the formulation and implementation of human rights. Yet there are obviously important political, social, cultural and economic dimensions to human rights. Why are governments so inconsistent (some would say hypocritical) in their approach to human rights? What social conditions are favourable and unfavourable to delivering such human rights as those to health, education and an adequate standard of living? What are the relative contributions of lawyers and social movements to the promotion of human rights? Are there important cultures that resist the human rights message? If so, how should human rights supporters respond to their challenge? Is respect for multiculturalism compatible with defending the human rights of women, children and sexual minorities? Which economic strategies are most likely to promote development with respect for human rights? Should the powerful international economic institutions – such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organisation – do more to promote human rights? Should the academic economics profession take human rights more seriously? Should human rights activists take economics more seriously? These are some of the questions I address in the second edition of my book, Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary Approach. In addition, I give an historical account of the development of human rights with some original elements; most standard accounts, for example, begin their histories of human rights in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and ignore the important debates about inherent and universal rights that took place in the late Middle Ages. It is now commonplace to talk of `three generations’ of rights: civil and political, economic and social, and various `solidarity’ rights. This is unhistorical. It is worth knowing that economic rights and the rights of indigenous peoples were among the first human rights to attract the attention of philosophers and theologians. So, many disciplines other than that of law can deepen our understanding of human rights.
Michael Freeman is Reader in Government at the University of Essex.