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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: May 2018

1 - International human rights law and notions of human rights: foundations, achievements and challenges



The term human rights is frequently used as if it were self-explanatory. It is tempting and not uncommon to view ‘human rights’ as something intrinsically good. Human rights are often labelled (somewhat mockingly) as the new religion, a label which illustrates the elevated status they appear to enjoy. On closer inspection, it becomes evident that the term human rights is used freely and sometimes loosely by members of different disciplines and the public at large, meaning different things – both positive and negative – to different people, depending on the context and the purpose for which it is used. It is therefore important to clarify the meaning(s) of the term by tracing its genealogy and examining its use in various contexts.

This undertaking cannot be confined to charting the development of international human rights law. Equating human rights with rights recognised in international treaties and/or other legal sources may in practice suffice when addressing particular human rights issues. Beyond this, it amounts to taking a purely positivist position that provides little guidance in response to a crucial question. Can a claim that something be recognised as a human right, for example the right to same-sex marriage, be justified, even if it is currently not explicitly recognised in law?

Human rights have an important dual function: they are claims based on particular values or principles and often also legal rights that entail entitlements and freedoms. Philosophical and political conceptions of human rights are broader than international human rights law, which is essentially a normative term referring to rights validated in recognised sources. While the two spheres are closely intertwined, they do not necessarily share a causal or automatic relationship, i.e. that every claim must transform into a legally recognised right. Nor is the relationship always harmonious. A legally recognised right may be defined too narrowly and may therefore exclude certain categories: for example age may not explicitly fall within the purview of the right to non-discrimination, or conversely a recognised right may be wider than thin theories of human rights based on a limited number of core rights.

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