0.1.1 The idea of human rights is one of the most prominent in Western political rhetoric today. A regime which protects human rights is good. One which violates them, or, worse still does not acknowledge them at all, is bad. There is a basis for the rhetoric. Talk of human rights can today be supported by such documents as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 together with later covenants which supplement it, and by the European Convention on Human Rights of 1953. Earlier it was often supported by eighteenth-century documents, notably the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1790. All these documents make use of the idea of human rights, but in none of them is it analysed and critically examined. This is not surprising, since their aims were practical and political, not academic and philosophical. Their authors assumed that the idea was straightforward. The problem was to give effect to it. But this assumption was mistaken. There are objections to the idea of human rights which I shall briefly indicate. They are not, however, insuperable. In this book I shall argue that there is a rationally defensible idea of human rights. It is at once less straightforward and more modest than anything in the documents but not on that account without significance. Just what its significance is, however, is something else which I shall consider in this book, which is an essay in the philosophy of human rights. It is concerned with the answers to two related questions: ‘What can be meant by human rights?’ and ‘How should we think of them?’
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