This chapter discusses the normative and theoretical foundations of human rights. More specifically, it examines the theoretical basis for the normative ideas advanced by those who use the language of human rights for an ethical critique of international politics and policy. The chapter first traces the origins of the language of rights before discussing cultural relativism and imperialism, both of which challenge the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ claim to have universal application. It then considers the negative/positive distinction as a way of thinking about the differences between liberty and welfare rights. It also explores group rights, along with the philosophical and political history of the idea of human rights. Finally, it explains how the human rights agenda is deeply political, showing that it privileges a certain set of normative commitments that its proponents hope will become, in time, the ethical constitution of the international system.
Anthony J. Langlois
This chapter explores the theoretical and political history of human rights that emerges out of the struggles that have been waged by feminists and other non-elites. It first considers the bases for the moral legitimacy of human rights and challenges to those arguments before discussing three aspects of feminist approaches to human rights: their criticism of some aspects of the theory and practice of human rights, their rights claims, and their conceptual contributions to a theory of human rights. It then examines the ways in which feminists and other activists for marginalized groups have used human rights in their struggles and how such struggles have in turn shaped human rights theory. It also analyses theoretical and historical objections to the universality of human rights based on cultural relativism. Finally, it shows that women’s rights advocates want rights enjoyment and not merely entitlements.
This chapter explores sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of human rights. Anthropologists and sociologists have typically been either positivists or relativists. Consequently they have been slow to develop an analysis of justice and rights, thus lagging behind other disciplines in analysing the growth of universal human rights. This chapter shows how sociology and anthropology finally engaged with the concept of universal human rights after a long disciplinary focus on cultural relativism and legal positivism. It considers how sociology expanded its analysis of citizenship rights to that of human rights and how anthropology turned its ethnographic methodology towards an examination of the ‘social life of rights’. It also describes ‘social constructionism’ as a common bond between sociology and anthropology, laying emphasis on the importance of sociological and anthropological perspectives to the study of human rights.