A C Grayling: 'The notion of human rights needs to be better understood'

From the British Institute for Human Rights lecture by the Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London
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The Independent Online

An important example is the question whether the "right to life", which figures early in all such instruments, implies a right to choose when and how to die also; another is the question whether the right to freedom of conscience amounts to a right to be protected from the forced imposition of religious observance or conformity. A third concerns the position of women in "traditional" and strongly religious societies; because human rights instruments do not discriminate on gender grounds in recognising or attributing rights, it follows that they give equal protection to women - but in many parts of the world women suffer deficits of rights, in ways not only harmful to the women concerned personally, but which also prevent the development of the societies to which they belong.

These points show that we are at the second crucial stage in the development of human rights thinking. The first was gaining widespread international recognition for the very idea of human rights - that has been more or less successful. The third will be achieving enforcement of human rights provisions, by bringing every dictator and oppressor to trial and punishing every violation of human rights. The current second stage is expanding the thin minimum meaning we attach to ideas of rights into a rich understanding of what those ideas imply about the human good. We need to make a start in that direction.

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