Who's right and whose wrongs?

21st November 2003 at 00:00
RIGHTS AND REASON. By Jonathan Gorman. Acumen Publishing pound;14.95 pbk, pound;40 hbkwww.acumenpublishing.co.uk

CHILDREN AS EQUALS. Edited by Kathleen Alaimo and Brian Klug. University Press of America pound;29 pbk, pound;55 hbk.

When UN delegates sat down to draft the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, they soon discovered that human rights were easier to declare than to define. Debate about the declaration's first article indicated the problem at hand.

First, the French delegate, Rene Cassin, proposed: "All men are brothers.

Being endowed with reason, members of one family, they are free and possess equal dignity and rights." Other delegates objected to the words "all men".

This did not mean "all people", complained the Soviet delegate, but reflected "the mastery of men over women".

Further, was humanity bestowed by God or by nature? The Brazilian suggested: "Created in the image and likeness of God, they are endowed with reason and conscience." The British delegate balked, on the grounds that mention of God would alienate the communist world. The Belgian delegate proposed a compromise: no mention of "God" or "nature".

The declaration thus acquired its universal, secular form, beginning with the first article: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Jonathan Gorman's Rights and Reason - an introduction to the philosophy that underpins the human rights doctrine - addresses the same questions that so vexed the drafters of the Universal Declaration. He examines the emergence of human rights during the Enlightenment, when reason triumphed over religion, through its early interlocutors, Locke, Hume, Kant and Bentham. (The last famously denounced "natural" rights as "nonsense on stilts".) Thereafter, the debate is traced through the 20th-century theories of Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls, as well as those of the logical positivist, WN Hohfeld.

Along the way, Gorman investigates the criteria for the application of rights to individuals, groups and animals and grapples with changing perceptions of humanity as their bearers. Ever since the 18th century, theorists have maintained that human beings are endowed with "inalienable" rights by simple virtue of being human. Thus, the resounding Declaration of the Rights of Man, passed just six weeks after the storming of the Bastille in 1789, asserted the "natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man" against the narrow privileges accorded to the Court and the Church.

Rights may be inalienable, but can they always be exercised? Enlightenment thinkers believed in the "perfectibility of man", and envisaged human beings as assertive citizens. So too did the standard-bearers of modern democracy. But today's human rights theorists tend to justify the ideal in terms of protecting the most vulnerable and marginal members of society.

This view of the apparently far-from-perfectible human condition, in which passive human beings are "empowered" rather than self-determining, begs the question: what benevolent agency will stand up for the vulnerable if they are unable to do it for themselves?

This thorny issue is at the heart of the debate about children's rights, addressed in the anthology Children As Equals. As editors Kathleen Alaimo and Brian Klug ask: "Do children's rights vary according to their age and competency? Are rights necessarily in the best interest of the child? How can children's rights be secured?" Using the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as an organising principle, the contributors, among them academics, psychologists and lawyers, investigate perceptions of childhood, and children's competence to assert their rights. The convention marks what Cynthia Price Cohen describes as a shift from a "child-caring perspective to a child-rights perspective".

The contemporary view of children as autonomous and assertive individuals who are not simply reliant upon adult protection is evidenced by some of the (mostly American) legal and social work cases cited here. It has also inspired educationists such as Sarah Ellen Kitchen, who leads a course on children's rights at Chestnut Hill college, Philadelphia. Her course materials include a copy of the convention, a map of the world, and videos portraying the lives of children around the world. She explains in her contribution to the book how she encourages her students to view these videos critically, and ask: "Are the children speaking for themselves?"

As these two books show, some two centuries after the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the realisation of human rights is still a matter of urgent debate.

Kirsten Sellars is the author of The Rise and Rise of Human Rights (Sutton pound;20)

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