On the Universality and Indivisibility of Human Rights

September 16, 2009

A fundamental element of human rights norms affects the relationship between the state and the individual. The formulation of human rights norms is viewed as a necessary precondition to ensure that the state’s overwhelming power does not infringe upon the autonomy of the individual and therefore upon his or her dignity. Understood in this limited sense, which encompasses only the individual and the state, this view mistakes the ends for the means. Namely, we cannot claim that the respect for universal human rights is an end in itself, since without the notion of human dignity, which it is meant to protect, it remains an empty concept. The creation of the International Bill of Human Rights, as a reaction to the catastrophic developments of the 20th century, could not have been an end in itself, but was rather a means to securing the achievement of a higher ideal: a world inhabited by dignified human beings.

The protection of human dignity must, on the other hand, be viewed as an end in itself. A world in which it is seen as a means to economic prosperity and even subordinated and infringed upon for the sake of this prosperity depicts a sad state of affairs. The relationship between economic prosperity and human dignity must reveal a hierarchy in which economic prosperity is pursued insofar as it is conducive to the dignity of all human beings. Human rights are thus a vehicle for the protection of human dignity. If abstention on the part of the state from infringements on the autonomy of the individual were adequate to ensure that human beings live a dignified life, then the narrowly understood concept of human rights would be sufficient to reach the desired ends. However, threats on human dignity appear from many sides and the relationship between the state and the individual is no longer the only sphere where human dignity is confronted by an antithetical force.

That this is so is nothing radically new in the human rights field. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 clearly states: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.”[1] The need to realise in practice the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights is seen as one of the main priorities in the human rights field and also as one of the greatest challenges in the global protection of human dignity.

[1] P. R. Ghandhi (ed.), International Human Rights Documents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 418.

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