Judge human rights records with a critical eye

Commonwealth values and principles, though they have roots in natural law principles, have emerged from political and economic struggles, often against the powerful. These values continue to be formulated and reformulated through such struggles.

It is important to recognise that claims made about human rights records are often statements made from within a particular political ideology and may well be only strategic claims made by one of the struggling groups. The obvious case is the USA, which has a very good basis for challenging the human rights records of some other countries such as North Korea, but is also responsible for cases like the illegal long-term detention of terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, without bringing specific charges against them. This has been condemned by the USA’s own courts.

Often, economic and political interests underpin what are represented as responses to human rights concerns. When you evaluate the situations you face in your own country, try to look into the political and economic complexity of the situation. Individual rights often come into conflict with each other, or with today’s collective rights or the collective rights of future generations.

Government policies or actions are often based on making practical choices among competing interests. It is important to maintain an open but critical mind in analysing these choices: Who wins? Who loses? Are there any other options that might produce different outcomes?

Except for a few rights like the ‘right to life’ and the ‘right to be free from torture’ – which everyone needs just for staying alive – it is likely that any two people’s lists of priorities will contain many differences, even if they are small.

It is perhaps only by protecting all the human rights and fundamental freedoms described in the conventions we have examined in this unit, that a government can be sure to create the conditions for real and sustainable development that benefits all its citizens.