• Robert Spicer

Human Rights: Individual Or Collective?

It has also been commented that if you look globally today and want to talk about human rights, for the vast majority of the world’s population they don’t mean very much. To talk about freedom of expression to a man who can’t read the newspaper, to talk about the right to work to someone who has no job: “human rights” means nothing to them unless it brings some change on these particular issues.

Western countries have not given economic, cultural and social rights the same priority as individual political and civil rights. The view of many Asian countries is that Western human rights elevate the individual above his community.

For example, in 1991 the Singapore government identified the core values of Asian society as placing society above self, upholding the family as the building block of society and the obligations of the community towards the welfare of less advantaged persons.

Some Asian countries also take the view that individual human rights are Western ideas imposed upon Asia as a form of neo-colonialism.

Chronic underdevelopment, grinding poverty, mass unemployment, homelessness, widespread illiteracy, systematic inequalities of income and opportunities and lack of healthcare can be seen as gross violations of human rights. Poverty is not simply a matter of material deprivation. It is a matter of human dignity, justice, fundamental freedoms and basic human rights.

Economic, social and cultural rights have no less priority than political and civil rights. They should be acknowledged as full legal rights which must be taken as seriously as civil and political rights. People whose economic rights are infringed are the majority. More children die of lack of food or water than people who are killed by torture or the death penalty.

In Western countries economic and social rights are treated as welfare state or socialist programmes, not as fundamental human rights. There has been academic discussion as to whether socio-economic rights can qualify as human rights. Cranston, for example, takes the view that social and economic rights are not true human rights because they do not meet the test of practicability, universality and of being of practical importance.

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