Andrew Clapham: master and futurologist of human rights

December 4, 2015

At the occasion of the publication of the second (revised and updated) edition of Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Clapham, Professor of Public International Law (Oxford University Press), the Graduate Institute interviewed him, on 2 December,  about the climate and long-term outlook for human rights. Andrew Clapham will be teaching a Spring 2016 course on The International Framework for the Protection of Human Rights as part of the Graduate Institute’s Master and PhD programmes in International Law. The book has an accompanying website which links to the main texts discussed.

How should we understand the concept of “human rights”?

Andrew Clapham: I have heard serious people in Geneva refer to human rights as ‘aspirations’ and I have heard it said that human rights are a ‘soft subject’. Both these misconceptions should be knocked on their heads. Human rights belong to all individuals and not to some future utopia. If those rights are violated, it represents a violation of the law, not the disruption of a dream. Human rights treaties and customary law are as ‘hard’ as trade or investment law. There are courts and prosecutors. Those convicted of genocide or torture go to prison. States found in violation of human right pay out millions in compensation. Of course there are violations of the law but that does not make the rights themselves imaginary.

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Where are the main failures in the protection of human rights in 2015, and what can be done about them?

Clearly there are egregious violations of human rights today. The right to life is being viciously violated in Syria; torture remains widespread in multiple countries; discrimination is everywhere; rights to food, education, health care and adequate housing are being denied around the world; but the human rights framework is used to frame the complaints about such issues and to design policies which prevent future violations. The failure to end the suffering in Syria sits with leaders who have the capacity to change things. The enforcement of human rights can play a role in prosecuting those who have committed crimes under human rights law and ensuring that everyone has the right to seek asylum.  The human rights framework can also be used to try to build a more stable and respectful society after the conflict

When is it justifiable for states to curtail or limit human rights?

Some rights, such as the right not to be tortured or the right not to be held in slavery can never be curtailed or limited; other rights related, say, to freedom of expression may have to be limited to protect the rights of others. Inciting racial violence is not protected by an absolute right to freedom of expression. Today, it is obvious that the right to privacy in one’s email correspondence is not absolute; it may have to be limited to protect others from threats to their lives through terrorist attacks. The discussion is over what procedures are necessary to limit such a right; should it be authorized by a judge, by the police, by a government minister?

Will we have a very different conception of human rights in 2065?

I doubt that any of the rights now included in the international texts will disappear, but their scope may be reduced or expanded. For example, there may be different expectations of privacy in 2065 – the right to be forgotten on the internet is only just emerging. In recent years we have seen new catalogues of rights for persons with disabilities and for indigenous peoples. I am confident that new rights for the elderly will be developed by 2065, and there will surely be developments along the lines of the right to a healthy environment. I suppose that eventually, some of the rights reasoning will be applied to sentient animals and the concept of animal rights will be more commonplace and less ‘aspirational’, but that is perhaps still quite a long way away.

Source: What will our “human rights” be in 2065?

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