There is a rights industry. There are people out there working for various big international agencies, who are paid to have meetings about human rights, and to come up with resolutions, which get redrafted, voted on, publicised, photocopied, and talked about some more.
That these people exist is not under question. That they personally benefit from it is clear enough. They have jobs and status from doing what they do. There is definitely a cost to society, therefore, for these "rights" which we get granted, in that this staff of rights-inventors and promoters needs paying, and needs offices to work in, and the whole process takes up government time. So, we know that there is a drawback to having these people among us. What, then, is the benefit?
I'm yet to spot one.
Take the example of the "right to live". This is, apparently, a "fundamental human right". I'm glad to live in a country which has so many more of these than other countries.
The right to live is a preposterous one. To whom can this right be granted? Do dead people have the right to live? If they do, then it does them no good, because they do not resurrect upon being granted this right, no matter how many times a copy of their case file is photocopied and refiled, or brought before the courts. So, the only people who can be granted the right to live are the people who are already living. But everyone who lives, will die. This "fundamental human right" will automatically be withdrawn by Nature one day or the next. Should the Department of Human Rights sue Mother Nature for violating this right? The right to live is a right which can only be granted to people who are enjoying it already, and from these it will always be withdrawn at the point of death. Saying that a man has the right to live "until he dies" is a right which has no effect whatsoever.
Some might say that the right to live, though itself clearly ludicrous, implies that there is a duty not to kill, and that although the first of these is useless, the second is a vital part of social justice. I would agree with this. However, I would also point out that every society on Earth has laws against killing. The common term for this is "murder", which was outlawed long before anyone dreamed up the idea of human rights. Laws against such trespassing on the interests of others are sensible, but these are not rights, freedoms; they are the opposite, they are prohibitions. People do not benefit individually from prohibitions, but societies do. Personally, I would like the right to kill anyone I want to, without fear of retaliation, but I do not want to live in a world in which everyone else has the right to kill me. Every freedom granted to one person, is a prohibition to another. It is wise for a society to prohibit acts which take away the freedom of others in a way which might provoke retaliation, and lead to civil strife. Unsurprisingly, all societies have spotted that it is a good thing to prohibit murder, rape, theft, vandalism, and the like.
So does granting someone the "fundamental human right not to be killed" help anyone? Well, no, it doesn't. All over the world, people continue to be killed. Every society allows certain forms of killing. In war, killing is a sad inevitability, so it is allowed. Sometimes extreme provocation is taken as a valid excuse for killing. Mercy killings are sometimes tolerated, as are those which save more lives than they destroy (example: shutting people in a flooding room, and drowning them, in order to stop the whole ship full of passengers from sinking). A society must weigh up the costs and benefits of a situation, and decide accordingly. Little good would come from trying every soldier who killed during a war with murder.
One possible use for a "human right" is that it is a way that countries A, B, and C might persuade country D to behave in some way which is approved of by A, B, and C. For instance, several countries get together, and decide that it would be an excellent thing if country D stopped circumcising girls, or feeding good meat to cats while there are people starving elsewhere, or allowing citizens to have guns, or whatever. They then grant all people some right or other, and use this to say to the non-conforming state that it must bend to their will. The union of states may feel that if it just came out and said "We want you to stop doing x" that this might not work, or even be counter-productive, so it dresses up its argument as an establishment of a fundamental human "right", and by this ploy hopes to achieve the goal. Upon analysis, then, human rights seem to be a hypocritical bit of rhetoric. Surely it is more honourable to say what you really mean.
But what if it is the government itself which is committing the crime? What if the government of country D were assassinating intellectuals of whom it disapproved? Here, a rights-industry worker might argue, is the place for human rights. Well, if a government is so ruthless, that it considers the killing of an entire category of person to be a good thing, then it is not going to stop just because someone says "that's a breach of human rights". The way to stop a government from doing something is through actions such as embarrassing it through publicity, through actions such as physical rescues of threatened people in that other state, and by imposing sanctions such as trade embargoes. Do, rather than talk. If the signatory countries to some treaty really mean what they say, they will carry out such actions. If they don't, then they just teach the world that the world can ignore them. For the worker in the rights industry, though, there is a strong vested interest in using the "human rights" argument. The danger is that there will be no end to these rights. It is in the interests of the industry to think up ever more and more human rights, each one more ridiculous than the last, and to denounce those who point out that they are silly, as bad men. When you hear that you have been granted the right to never hear a nasty word said about you, you may by then have spotted that human rights are rather silly things.
All over the world, people do bad things, and all societies try to punish the bad. Let them get on with it. Granting people rights does nothing. If I grant people the right to have a television, do they all then get one from the ether? No. If we grant everyone the fundamental human right to be happy, will they then all be happy? No. Are there any rights at all which people can be granted? There are legal rights, such as the right to be advised by a solicitor after being arrested, and these might have some bearing on the way the legal process occurs, but they would be no guarantee of anything. The only "right" I can think of which might work would be one conditional upon some specified behaviour, such as "If you make sure that your children attend school every day, then the state will give you free access to your local sports centre" or the like. This would give an incentive to people to behave in a way which would in the long term be of benefit to a society. This, though, is a long way away from a "fundamental human right", and is really a practical deal, which some states might be in a position to set up and run, and others not.
Let us close down the rights industry, and with the amount of money saved, do something useful instead.
Post script: Since writing the above, it has occurred to me that a human-rights advocate might argue that "human rights" are useful for prosecuting toppled tyrants. If the governors of one country had reason to believe that an international coalition of states might spend vast sums of money prosecuting them once they have been toppled from power, then they may decide to behave more benignly to their population when in power. Personally, I don't believe this. Here are my reasons:
1. Tyrants have little intention of being toppled, and prefer to think that they will stay in power forever. They have often done appalling things to get to where they are, and to stay there even for a short time, and so there are enough people out for revenge as it is.
2. Tyrants who have been cruel to those they rule, are very likely to leave the country they have ruled once toppled. They can usually find some country willing to have them. Countries which disapprove of them are able to deny them admission, and free to impose sanctions on other countries which do admit them, and they can do this without any need for a definition of human rights. When the human rights argument is used, the country admitting the former tyrant can always say that it will deport the villain only once a court has proven that he is guilty, and that it is unfair to punish him until his crimes are so proven. This is one drawback of having such a legal process: it has to proceed before one can act with legitimacy.
3. Tyrants who are toppled and do not leave are at the mercy of those they once ruled. It is surely the ideal for foreign countries to punish their own transgressors. If such a country wants to forgive a former tyrant, then that surely is its own affair.
4. History tells us that trials of transgressors by international bodies take ages, cost millions, and seldom succeed. Just bringing a known and notorious war criminal to trial can be exceedingly difficult. Many such criminals remain at large, waiting for the machinery of international justice to do its work, until they are old men. The recent affair of General Pinochet, who was kept at the British tax-payers' expense for eighteen months, under heavy guard and in luxury, is a good illustration of the inefficiency of these attempts to impose international justice, using the device of human rights. He has now returned to his native Chile, and it is for those whom he once terrorised to decide his fate.