Avoiding Human Rights

12 May 2008

How Less Obvious Abuse Persists

Every child has their rights, by carf, with Creative Commons licence Mention the importance of human rights and you’ll usually conjure haunting images of freedom denied, societies ruined and bodies maimed. That’s serious stuff, and surely enough to make even the most light-hearted person stop and think. But not all violations are as noticeable or straightforward. Often protection is in place for the most minor of rights, but it’s systematically challenged, eroded and finally ignored.

Following my last post on the lack of substantial rights and clearly defined obligations for foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, I added an ‘I blog for Human Rights’ button to the sidebar at the right. My intention was to identify the rights I’m concerned about within their proper context, and not as purely local issues.

Human rights tend to attract romantic notions about grand errors in the progress of civilisation. But more specifically they’re rights that governments tend to trample on, and their recognition helps to limit state action. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes human rights as “international norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses”. The key word here is ‘severe’, and the article goes on to argue against “rights inflation”, or the inclusion of less than urgent, universal problems as human rights.

Human right, by riacale, with Creative Commons licenceThe main difficulty with this definition, and one that the writer grapples with, is that situations one person considers urgent, severe or somehow reflecting a universal problem might not be the same those that trouble another person. Some abuses are obvious – torture can do no good, and neither can slavery. But what about migrant worker wage inequality and contracts that insist a domestic helper in Hong Kong must live with her employer? Are they abusive, and are they severe enough to be considered restrictions on human rights?

Yes they are, for the very simple reason that they violate internationally recognised agreements on the sort of rights that everyone should have.

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