Human Rights
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Introduction: What are Human Rights?

The era of globalization is also the era of the individual. Revolutionary innovations in technology and telecommunications have empowered the individual, for better or worse, to exercise a previously unthinkable degree of self-expression. The same age that has seen the advent of the threat of global terror networks is also the one that has given birth to YouTube.

This focus on the individual is part of a broader trend that has been underway for centuries and has only intensified since the end of the Second World War. One of its most important manifestations in the twentieth – and now twenty-first – century has been the development of a conceptual and legal framework for human rights as well as a new dimension of civil society dedicated to ensuring that these rights are protected.

Human rights recognize the dignity inherent in every person as a human being, regardless of his or her particular nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, class or any other group affiliation or characteristic. As a result, they assert the moral and legal primacy of the individual over other entities that have “rights,” such as the family and the state.

Though human rights are purportedly universal and self-evident, scholars struggle to justify their existence, enumeration, and international enforcement. What are the metaphysical and epistemological foundations for the existence of human rights? Which rights, if any, are truly fundamental and universal? If particular human rights — or indeed even the concept of human rights in itself — are not recognized universally, can the nations that do subscribe to human rights legitimately involve themselves in the human rights abuses of nations that don’t? Is it plausible to suppose we can reach a truly universal agreement on what human rights are?

This Issue will examine the history of human rights and survey some of the key debates about how these rights should be applied in current real-world situations.


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