Joseph Nunn, '19, on the Promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as They Have Been Realized in Practice

The Foundation of Human Rights: Is “Enough” Really Enough?

Last month’s inaugural entry in this blog series asked, “Why human rights?” Using the powerful example of the campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa, it explained that the principle justification for human rights is their ability to affect positive change in the world, particularly for marginalized populations. Human rights are certainly a powerful tool for doing good. But are they enough?

In his recent book, Samuel Moyn argues that they are not. Moyn critiques the longstanding focus within human rights law and among human rights advocates on “sufficiency:” that is, on ensuring a baseline of access to the protections and entitlements of human rights. Moyn contrasts sufficiency with another potential goal of human rights: equality, or the equal enjoyment of the good things in life. He explains that human rights’ focus on sufficiency, and the global consensus that this sufficiency-centered vision of human rights is itself enough, has allowed human rights to co-exist peacefully alongside the global explosion in inequality over the past forty years. Human rights may have helped end Apartheid, but South Africa today is the most unequal country in the world. Moyn calls for a new global social justice movement focused on equality that would exist alongside human rights. But short of a new global movement for economic equality– couldn’t the existing human rights system advance equality of access, resources, and even wealth?

To visualize the dichotomy Moyn identifies between sufficiency and equality, imagine a country where prisoners are regularly beaten and humiliated by prison guards. This is a sufficiency issue: prisoners in this country are not sufficiently protected or provided with the basic right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Now imagine a second country where the richest 1% of people own 40% of the country’s wealth — more than the bottom 90% of people combined. This is an equality issue: while most people in the bottom 90% could enjoy decent living standards and sufficient access to entitlements like education and healthcare, the vast inequality in wealth means that the richest 1% are in a position to exercise disproportionate power over the country’s politics to advance their own interests. Should human rights advocates be concerned with the first country’s abuse of prisoners and not the second country’s inequitable distribution of wealth?

Read more at International Human Rights Clinic Blog

International human rights