Human Rights: Just Social Institutions, or just social institutions

By Jason MacLeod on February 9, 2011 — 3 mins read

Human rights, argues Thomas Pogge, should be conceived “primarily as claims on coercive institutions.” (Pogge: 51). Meaning, “a human right to X entails the demand that…any coercive social institutions be so designed that all human beings affected by them have secure access to X.” And, “ a human right is a moral claim on any course of social institutions imposed upon oneself and therefore a moral claim against anyone involved in their design or imposition.” (52).   Pogge notes that familiar institutional understandings of human rights are weak because legal and even constitutional rights often do not suffice to ensure secure access.   Poor and uneducated persons are not capable of insisting on their rights because  “they do not know what their legal rights are or lack the knowledge or minimal economic independence necessary to pursue the enforcement of their rights through the proper legal channels.” (51).  We assume that nation states and its citizens will ensure that human rights protections are incorporated into their legal and/or constitutional documents thereby giving its citizens a right to redress, but this pathway to redress is not a realistic ideal.

The education of human rights to individuals is truly the first step in enforcing rights. For example, a law student focuses on human rights law and commits to being a public interest lawyer. Through his educational process he learned the means and mechanisms to apply human rights protections to those who need it. On the other hand, we have the victim of a human rights atrocity in the developing world who has no knowledge of what human rights protection were violated or how he or she could seek redress. Even if the right violated in the second example was a codified and protected human right in that state’s constitution, the barriers to applying and using that codified right, such as educational financial means, has effectively created a legal structure of exception. That individual is placed in the space of exception were normally applicable laws do not apply to him or her. This institutional legal structure with gaps for those who cannot effectively seek redress of human rights violations is not an effective institutional legal structure.

The significant difference between the institutional structure critiqued above and Pogge’s theory is that in the former, human rights violations are primarily addressed to the government and its agents, in the latter, it’s the institutional structure of the society itself that would address the human rights violation. This difference is significant because a lack of education and financial means to address your grievances is no longer a barrier. And in a sense, this is a communitarian theory of a just social society.  Each citizen has the responsibility to ensure that their rights are protected and would do this by constantly interacting with the institution itself. A more liberal construction of the human rights paradigm portrays a more individualistic view.   A liberal based human rights society requires the victim to know their rights and have the financial means to address them.

If each person in the world was morally responsible and had a personal stake in the protections of the just human rights regime, and there were no educational or financial barriers, we would see the manifestation of an effective and efficient human rights regime.   This regime would also ensure that the myriad differences between nation states and cultures be respected. There would be no hegemonic Western ideals of human rights. Each culture, which is unique in and of itself, would produce the social institutions that would effectively enforce and empower their own human rights discourse. For each social institution that chose to coercively violate human rights would be held responsible by its own citizenry.  Therefore, to stay in power, the current social institution must place human rights as a high priority.   And in placing human rights as the fundamental structure of social institutions, the country would be free of coercion and pressure from other similarly enlightened nation states.

Pogge, T. W. M. (2008). World poverty and human rights. Cambridge: Polity.