||A right is an entitlement embedded in some social or institutional context. To have a right is to expect to be treated in a certain way, which others are under an obligation to fulfil. We say that rights should be \'guaranteed\', not \'violated\': words which express the force with which we assert a right, as opposed to a mere need or want. Rights are special claims, with respect to the kind of things customarily involved, such as protection from arbitrary arrest, freedom of speech, and life itself. To refer to human rights is to stress that they apply to humankind rather than to all living creatures, though this usage can have other implications (considered below).
Rights have certain common features: strength, as particularly important interests; urgency, in the sense of priority over other interests (e.g. needs and wants); and they are peremptory in that they may exclude certain actions such as preventing persons from voting or torturing them. Rights which relate to what people should have are sometimes termed positive; those which specify what should not happen to them are negative. A distinction is sometimes made between rights as derivative, held and respected insofar as they promote some ultimate good (like the right to vote promoting political freedom), and as foundational or arising from our humanity.
Rights are sometimes regarded as purely personal attributes: part of what individual citizens are entitled to in a democratic society. However, we do talk of the rights of particular groups in society, such as racial or ethnic minorities, women and political dissidents. In any event, rights can never be entirely individual, because they imply an obligation or duty on others. This is most obvious in the case of rights with a peremptory character; the requirement not to treat people in a particular way is often stronger than to do something positive for them. Individual rights are central to liberalism, which is criticized in communitarianism as giving insufficient attention to obligations.
A distinction can be made between legal and moral rights. Legal rights are the more secure, because they can be asserted or defended in the courts. Moral rights may simply express an aspiration, such as votes for blacks in South Africa before this was enshrined in law. A further distinction is between liberty-oriented rights, sometimes referred to as civic and political rights, which concern freedom of action, and security-oriented rights (or claim rights) which refer more to economic and social requirements to protect people\'s physical and material status, such as unemployment and social security benefits.
Some rights may be held to be universal, applying to all people everywhere and at all times, and inalienable in that they can neither be given nor taken away. The term human rights is often used to refer to those moral rights which are supposed to be universal. That such rights are not universally respected in practice is a matter of common observation, of the (geographical) relativity of actual rights.
The notion of human rights is itself problematic. It is not generally agreed that our common humanity necessarily justifies any rights as natural attributes of humankind. Some postmodern attitudes see any definition of human nature as dangerous, because it threatens to devalue or exclude acceptable differences. However, the idea of a range of universal rights, equally attributed to all persons by virtue of their shared humanity, has strong appeal in a world of domination and oppression, even without invoking the proposition that human rights are natural.
A particular attraction of the concept of human rights is that it requires specificity. In claiming or denying a right, it is important to know exactly what someone is or is not entitled to. A formal statement of rights is a useful means of being precise. For example, the Declaration of Rights of Men and Citizens enacted by the First French Republic in 1791 asserted that \'Men are born and remain free and equal in rights â€¦ these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression\'. The first ten Amendments to the Constitution of the United States (the Bill of Rights) specify certain freedoms that people should not be denied, for example freedom of worship and speech, and not to be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures. At the international scale, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and in 1966 produced its Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which are legally binding on those states formally ratifying them. However, such declarations are sometimes criticized as promising more than they can make individuals and nations deliver.
An important geographical issue is whether people can be said to have a right to, literally, a place in the world. That they are was suggested by Thomas Hobbes in his classic The Elements of Law, recognizing the right to a place to live among things necessary for life. This is sometimes extended into an argument for the right to private property, in the form of land ownership required to guarantee security of a place to live as a legal right. John Locke proposed a natural law of property, which is an important feature of libertarianism. However, a right to own land differs from other commonly enunciated rights, in that it concerns appropriation of the scarce material world, and can impinge on the rights of others to meet such vital needs as food and shelter. At the extreme, private ownership of land, by restricting access, can deprive others of a place to live, even of the right to life. This is an example of how rights can conflict with one another. Land rights, manifest in private ownership or other forms of tenure, are of paramount importance to the link between geography and social justice. (See also citizenship; ethics, geography and.)Â (DMS)
Suggested Reading Jones, P. 1994: Rights. London: Macmillan.Â Selby, D. 1987: Human rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Â Waldron, J., ed., 1984: Theories of rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Â Waldron, J. 1993: Rights. In R.E. Goodin and P. Pettit, eds, A companion to political philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 575-85.