Can you Prioritise Human Rights?

The debate over whether human rights are universal or depend on the culture you live in is partly concerned with the question of whether some rights are more important than others.

Frequently, rights are divided into three different categories:

  • civil and political rights: these are rights such as the right to freedom of speech or the right to vote – they can also be viewed as liberty or freedom rights. Earlier in this unit, we have seen that these rights are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • economic, social and cultural rights: these include things like the right to work or health care for all – also conceptualised as ‘equality rights’. These rights are protected most comprehensively by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • collective rights: these are rights that apply to people together or as a whole, such as the right of all peoples to self-determination, or the rights to development, a healthy environment, peace or food security. These rights are also known as ‘fraternity’ or ‘solidarity’ rights. To date, the UN General Assembly has endorsed a Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace (1984), and a Declaration on the Right to Development (1996). These address collective rights, but they are declarations rather than conventions and do not have the same legal force.

East and West championed the first two groups of rights. Collective or solidarity rights also have their own champions, mostly among developing countries and non-governmental organisations advocating greater equity in the international economy. However, collective rights are controversial. As these rights are essentially about creating new forms of international co-operation and a more equitable balance of power internationally, they are seen as ‘threatening’ to established political and economic elites in both developed and developing countries. There is also a perennial tension between group rights and individual rights – which are to have priority?

Collective rights are particularly challenging when we consider the conflict of inter-generational collective rights: the rights of future generations versus the rights of our own generation. This is a central ethical issue raised in almost all discussions about the environment: limits to our use of resources today are justified because future generations will be the ones who have to deal with the consequences and who are not here yet, to be able to voice their concerns. Our de facto definition of collective rights seems however to be entirely selfish, since we take only a short-term perspective and prioritise our own needs.