The United States has an opportunity to fill the moral vacuum of international human rights—epitomized by the ever-increasing push to replace individual rights with group rights—with renewed ideas and renewed methods for improving respect for individual freedoms and rights. The principle of individual rights and freedoms is the key to people living together peacefully with their differences. To challenge the idea of collective human rights, to insist that the universality of individual human rights has a transcendental foundation, and to rally allied partners in efforts to defend individual freedom and civil society, should be the central pillar of U.S. foreign policy. In the long term, it will help secure a more peaceful and prosperous future for all.
The human right to individual liberty rests on a moral and rational foundation that was understood in ancient times, with the realization that the laws of rulers and legislatures must conform to the laws of nature so as not to infringe on the freedoms that are essential to human nature. Human beings possess reason and moral agency—the capacity to make moral choices; this is what forms the core of humanity. True human rights are those that constrain governments from violating our inherent, natural right to liberty—the freedom to live and act in accordance with these central pillars of humanity’s common nature.
To the degree that the individual right to liberty has been honored and respected, societies have flourished, and their members have had opportunities for human fulfillment. To the degree that they have been betrayed, restrictions on fundamental freedoms have resulted in tragic human suffering: violence, poverty, discrimination, the manipulation of truth and information, and lost opportunities to advance the welfare of individuals and societies.
At the end of World War II, the international human rights system was envisioned as a project to defend individual human rights. Yet, through ideologically driven revisionism, it has evolved to endorse a broadly expanded array of rights, including many that are profoundly inconsistent with the philosophical and moral foundations of the very concept of inherent, natural human rights. Today, internationally protected human rights include rights rooted in political movements, that obligate government not to respect freedoms, but to provide services, and corporate solidarity rights that are not individual rights at all.
One variant of the latter is the notion of “collective human rights.” Collective human rights show the contempt for intellectual integrity that underlies much of contemporary human rights discourse and practice, and the failure of the international community as custodian of the idea of human rights itself. Since the establishment of the international human rights system over 70 years ago, and particularly in recent decades, more and more attention in the human rights community (including international institutions as well as civil society campaigns) has been devoted to collective and group rights, and international human rights legislation has focused on protecting the rights of specific categories of people with a tendency to collectivize them in a framework of group interests and entitlements.
Scholars and activists have sought to give assurance that such collective rights neither exclude, nor conflict with, individual human rights.1
See, for example, B. G. Ramcharan, “Individual, Collective and Group Rights: History, Theory, Practice and Contemporary Evolution,” International Journal on Group Rights, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1993), pp. 27–43.
But they do. “A collective right is not a human right, but a right established by a state or community regarding a group.”2
K. Anthony Appiah, “Grounding Human Rights,” in Michael Ignatieff et al., Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
There are no specifically women’s human rights, gay human rights, indigenous peoples’ human rights, or disabled persons’ human rights, beyond those they share with all others. Collective or “group” human rights are an oxymoron because they are not rights of human beings.
This Special Report aims to provide a cursory review of the origins of the idea of collective human rights, and how these rights entered into international human rights law and “soft law.”3
Soft law refers to principles, agreements, and declarations, generally in the international sphere, that are not legally binding.
It enumerates the ways that collective human rights are a threat to individual human rights and how they drive human rights proliferation and inflation, how they dilute attention to basic freedoms, clutter and politicize the international human rights agenda, and how they impair—sometimes intentionally—efforts to identify and address violations of individual civil and political rights. Collective rights are fragmenting and divisive, corrosive of the vision of humanity as such—the moral vision that gives human rights their potential as an inclusive, international movement on behalf of all individuals, everywhere.