What are rights?

Human Rights Watch tells us the Trumpers are messing with human rights.

The United States State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights risks calling for a dangerous downgrading of international human rights protections. On January 10, 2020, the Human Rights Watch executive director, Kenneth Rothtestified at the commission’s fourth open session.

While the fundamental rights set out in the human rights treaties are clear, the Trump administration has taken issue with the rights they uphold, such as reproductive freedom or the rights of LGBT people not to face discrimination. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the commission’s exercise in identifying “unalienable” rights is the administration’s unilateral attempt to rewrite international law based on its own beliefs.

That certainly seems plausible.

“The US government’s voice is needed on human rights, but it should be a voice that upholds the principled defense of all rights, not a pick-and-choose approach,” Roth said. “Repressive governments frequently justify their human rights violations by claiming that some rights are more important than others. If the Trump administration adopts its own selective approach to human rights, it will only facilitate this classic excuse to evade the requirements of international human rights law.”

Well…I certainly don’t want Trumpers deciding what rights we can have, but on the other hand, it’s not wrong to say either that some rights are more important than others, or that some claimed “rights” aren’t rights at all. Trump, for instance, thinks he (and he alone) has all kinds of rights that in reality aren’t rights. Trump thinks he has a right to punish reporters who criticize him or even just tell the truth about what he’s doing.

Rights are in fact a human artifact, and they are contestable. You know the UDHR, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Fun fact: there’s a competing Islamic version, in which all the rights depend on consistency with the Koran.

ARTICLE 1:(a) All human beings form one family whose members are united by their subordination to Allah and descent from Adam.

So much for universality then.


(a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.

1.. Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Shari’ah.

(c) Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical Values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.


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