Human rights and moral wrongs

by Dr. Henry B. Tam

Why does the term ‘human rights’, like ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’, elicit passionate devotion from some people, but cold scepticism from others?

In truth, unless we can explain what underpins human rights in a clear and consistent manner, any attempt to invoke them in defending human wellbeing risks not just misinterpretation, but outright dismissal.

To understand the real importance of human rights, we need to recognise them as the products of moral agreement reached through intercultural dialogue under conditions of genuine reciprocity. It is when all concerned come to a shared understanding that their wellbeing would be weighed with equal consideration, and that any transgression would be readily condemned by everyone else, that they are prepared to commit to a joint endeavour of delimiting in principle what anyone can be expected to do and not to do in relation to others.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights was an historical milestone in the advancement of collective recognition of the protection to which all human beings should expect. Its declaration was significant precisely because it was made possible by the agreement of the members of the United Nations. A few individuals or countries declaring ‘universal rights’ would ring hollow if others were to regard them as biased or myopic.

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