Sustainable development as a human right

Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, connects the dots and squares the circle: How does a human-rights approach help to achieve sustainable development?. An emphasis on rights might seem at odds with an emphasis on results. Not to worry—what both mean is a universal socialist commonwealth. Everyone in the world, Mrs. Robinson says, has an internationally enforceable human right not to be poor, no one (as we know from other sources) should have too much, and we’re busily developing the authoritative universal bureaucracies to make those principles practical realities. Like the John Birchers, she tells us that “international machinery is quietly working away with the co-operation of states and civil societies to advance human rights and sustainable development.” Only the greedy, bigoted or myopic would quibble about what the actual consequences are likely to be. And why should the “concerns” of people like that even be discussed?

2 thoughts on “Sustainable development as a human right”

  1. Truly, Mrs. Robinson
    Truly, Mrs. Robinson connects the dots and squares the circle. Now there can be no question of what it is we’re dealing with. “Rights”—originally understood as a claim to procedural protections whereby people are treated equally and fairly under the law—have now fully “evolved” into substantive economic claims on society. Moreover, “human rights”—which originally was a very narrow concept denoting only THE MOST BASIC AND INDISPENSABLE rights pertaining to the inviolability of one’s person, such as the right not to be tortured (and these human rights received the international recognition that they did precisely because they were seen both as of limited scope and as indispensable)—have now evolved into the right to a materially secure and comfortable existence. And, further, since “human rights” are an international matter, enforced by an international system (a system that, Mrs. Robinson ominously reminds us, has “now reached a considerable maturity in both the analysis of the components of all rights and in identifying what constitutes their violation and what action needs to be taken to remedy such violations”), “human rights” now simply means a global socialist government.

  2. That original understanding
    That original understanding of rights as equal procedural protections is already problemmatic, though, and leads inevitably to the sort of deeply entrenched irrationality we see now. The “equal” requirement could mean that we have to ignore any particular facts that are not relevant. But of course we already know to ignore facts that are not relevant—this is basic rationality—, so “equal” is either empty or it must mean something more. Either case causes trouble: if it is empty it still implies something more just by being there, so people naturally seek that something more out.

    The word “right,” like many words, has at least two quite distinct meanings. One meaning defines a whole class of possible claims, e.g. property rights. The other meaning is in a particular sense, e.g. THIS person has a right to THIS property.

    It is fundamentally irrational to assert that either sort of rights (procedural or substantive in the traditional wording) are “equal”.

    The particular or substantive case is obvious: if everyone equally has a right to THIS property then that is the same as nobody having a right to it. So the substantive equality concept immediately reduces to self-contradiction.

    The one people have a more difficult time with is abstract or procedural equality. To say that everyone has an equal abstract right to property is just to say that any particular person MIGHT have an actual particular right to an actual particular property, and if they did then some certain rules would apply. But “might” or “could” or “possibly” is not the same thing as “is.” Nobody HAS an abstract right; an abstract right by its nature cannot be HAD, it merely represents the abstract possibility of the inherence of a particular right.

    I have a difficult time understanding what it is that makes some traditionalists wistfully attempt to hold on to the procedural equality of yesteryear, or treat it as somehow more valid than today’s development of equality. It is that which leads inevitably to this.


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