What comes to your mind when you think about the words “human rights”? This pair of words is well known but its concept and content are not familiar actually for most of the people. Maybe Syrian war and refugee crisis comes to your mind or the extreme poverty of children in developing countries. This is something that maybe seems far and distant. In this introductory text I want to talk about human rights in our ordinary life and the correlation between human rights and law.
So what are human rights? I think human rights are the tool to improve the wellbeing of mankind. Human rights are not a purpose in itself. Human rights have been developed and should be respected to sustain and improve the wellbeing of mankind in all its respects. Human rights are very effective in this regard since they encompass all the different aspects of our lives and wellbeing and allow us to tell our different stories in a common perspective. Not only do human rights explain the basic right to life, food, clothing or shelter, but they can also cover issues such as racism, sexism or other kinds of discrimination. We can talk about everything which is related to our life in the context of human rights.
There is another well-known tool to advance our life – positive law in general. Although compliance with law is important, the law – again – is not the purpose in itself. The purpose of law is to guarantee some rules and norms necessary for the functioning of the society, human wellbeing and safety. Laws that are harmful or impoverish our lives do not serve the purpose of law. Human rights provide us the framework and indicators based on which we can assess whether a law or a legal norm is legitimate, i.e. serving the purpose of law articulated above or not. If a law or a norm contradicts human rights, it should not be enforced.
Nevertheless, some people think that the positive law is always right and acting in violation of a law as a neutral social contract is always wrong, no matter what the law says or abiding by it brings. With all the respect to the Rule of Law, we need to remain critical also with valid laws as law is a man-made thing and men make mistakes. For instance, when we think about the child labor in the early 20th century which was committed under the name of liberal labor, we can see that not all laws are neutral social contracts. Assessing such law against human rights norms and principles, it is clearly illegitimate.
So, we need human rights for twofold reasons – as a framework defining different aspects of our life and wellbeing into a universal legal language and as a tool to assess the legitimacy of our legislation and, if necessary, a basis for amending or abolishing it. For doing that adequately we need a deeper understanding of human rights. This is why we need to study and advance human rights.
Toimetanud Mariann Rikka