Human Rights

Women’s rights are human rights. Transgender rights are human rights. Sex workers’ rights are human rights. Palestinian rights are human rights. Native rights are human rights. Muslim rights are human rights. Immigrant rights are human rights.

These are just a few of the slogans that have been yelled at many different rallies, demonstrations and protests. They also appear on signs in the crowd. Each makes me think about the large tapestry that is human rights. When we say human, we are talking about every human being. Every human being is entitled to basic human rights. But when we are talking about human rights, the reality is that certain groups are oppressed and in need of basic civil and human rights more than others. We need to say Black Lives Matter. We do not need to say white lives matter and we don’t need to say all lives matter. It is true that all lives matter, but it does not need to be articulated because it displaces women and minorities from the center of the struggle and masks our oppression by just talking about everybody.

One of the dangers of human rights is that it can prioritize all humans over particular social groups that are systematically targeted by an oppressive society. For instance, when someone says they are a “humanist” or an “equalist” [grrrr] they are implying that there is not a need for feminism, and there most certainly is. It’s true that one could be a feminist and a humanist simultaneously, but when one is just a humanist and not a feminist, Houston, we have a problem.

Often human rights is deployed in a global context and it is deployed in the discourse of human rights abuses. For example, this might be used when people are being murdered by the government, denied freedom of speech, when whistle-blowers are being persecuted or prisoners are being tortured, etc. This could be an across the board thing, or it could be that certain groups, like People of Color, Women or LGBTQ folks are specifically being targeted. Instead of identity groups, it is also highly possible that people are being persecuted based on their political ideology, affiliation or activities. For instance, the FBI and CIA are notorious for their persecution of left-wing groups in the United States, such as the Black Panthers and many other liberatory organizations as well as individuals.

What does human rights encompass? Assuming there is no overt violence, I see the right to housing food, heat, basic income, medical care and meaningful employment as some of the top human rights. Also, I see the ability to live a life that is not filled with rampant discrimination to be a human right. To be transgender, for instance, almost certainly means to be dogged by prejudice and discrimination, and in a society where human rights were taken seriously, this simply would not occur.

Human rights are obviously vitally important for any society to have. But human rights do not take the place of women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, People of Color rights, etc. We still need the specificity of the movements and humanism is no replacement for them. However, all of these different rights do fall under the larger umbrella of human rights and show the interconnectedness of human beings in their common struggle for full dignity, respect and a safe, fulfilling and productive life.