We are in a period in which 'rights' of individuals or collectives are perhaps too easily discovered also too timidly opposed.  The right to die (euthanasia), abortion, life, work, public housing, privacy, welfare - are all rights which are topical in 2002. 

In Western societies, the notion of human rights had its origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition which gave humans rights because of each individual's special relationship with God.  This means that the Western notion of rights does not necessarily sit comfortably in the intellectual frameworks of non-Western societies.  This raises the question of whether 'indigenous rights' (however expressed) may still be foreign to an indigenous culture; even inviting non-Western people to specify their rights can be an imposition which distorts the cultural inheritance of the non-western people in question. 

Although 'the rights of man' were integral to the French and American revolutions, they had only a minor impact on diplomatic practice over the ensuing century.  Globally, there was, over the 20th century, a growth in the prominence of human rights stemming from reaction to killing if the Armenians (1915-16) and the Pogroms in eastern Poland and Bessarabia (1918-19).  This reaction was to require the new states created by the Paris Peace Conference (1919) to guarantee their minorities certain collective entitlements.  The League of Nations failed to protect the rights of the Jews in Germany and the Nazis had explicitly subordinated the rights of individuals to the rights of the (authoritarian, Nazi) state.

In the early 1940s, when the UN was being established, the German experience, and the liberal reaction to the bellicosity of dictatorships, combined with the US desire to carve out an international role for itself in the post-war world, led to the overtaking of minority rights with the notion of individual rights.  The 1919 system of giving minorities collective entitlements gave way to treating all citizens of a state equally before the law. Minority rights often included the right for the minority to education in their own language, but this was seen by the majority, in retrospect, as perpetuating 'nations within nations' which became sources of civil disturbance and harboured the potential for further demands by the minority and eventually revolt.  In the purposes of the United Nations we find 'promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinctions of race, sex, language or religion'; three of those four characteristics had been the very distinctions used in the League of Nations' system for the protection of minorities and the fourth, sex, had often been condoned implicitly, by permitting minority cultural practices.  At the level of effective international enforcement, we have not gone beyond the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The US, among others, ensured there would be no binding convention or program of implementation.

Natural rights
In a world of nation states, the rights referred to in the opening paragraph are privileges or legal rights granted to one set of citizens over another: abortion activists over right-to-lifers, rights to freedom of expression against laws proscribing racist expression, or to citizens as a whole against the state: privacy advocates against the state's security agencies.  There is an arbitrary, culture- and time-specific quality to these rights; they are not natural.  But are there any natural rights?

E E Cook writes 'I would argue that the only right we have is that our natural parents, from the instant of conception, will shelter and sustain us until we are able to fend for ourselves.  The niceties and advantages of civilizations are just that.  Health care, education, clean water, clean air, transport, reliable food, housing.  We have no right to them; they are more privileges than anything else.  Life, however, is essential.  We all value our own life; we expect others to respect our right to live so we are therefore duty bound to respect and protect the lives of everyone else - including the infant in the womb.'  Cook has nothing to say about conflicting rights, about whether abortion is sanctioned under this position or the sanctions that society might impose, if any, on those who transgress.

Indigenous peoples' rights
Indigenous people have suffered extrajudicial killings.  These are described as gross human rights violations and it is when we consider extreme cases of abuse like these (genocide, torture, slavery) that we need to decide where we stand on human rights.  Indigenous peoples are today advocating their rights (against the state, against other citizens, against corporations and, even, against international treaties - harvesting whales and dugongs, for example).  Indigenous people, including past and present hunter-gatherers, swidden farmers, pastoral nomads and other non-industrialized, non-peasants, non-urban dwellers, are claiming rights under the following categories:

  land rights
  resource rights
  equal rights for indigenous women
  equal civil and political rights including the right to vote (these appear to have been
    achieved nominally in all states)
  the right to determine who is and who is not a member of their group
  the rights to subsistence resources including the right to hunt otherwise protected
    species such as whales and dugong, some using only traditional technologies, some
    with low-level modern technologies, some hunting with quota limits
  the rights to financial returns from economic activities in their lands
    (rents, royalties)
  the rights to forest products
  rights to intellectual and biological property - for instance drugs derived
    from plants and the way those drugs are used commercially where they
    draw on indigenous knowledge
  self determination
  equitable distribution of welfare regardless of their remoteness
  some individuals have pushed out in advance of non-indigenous groups
    for planetary rights including the rights to be free of environmental
    toxins and to a healthy environment.


E E Cook, Canberra Times, 14 February 2002
Mark Mazower's inaugural lecture as professor of history, Birkbeck College, University of London, 31 January 2002, republished in the New Statesman (esp. for the 1920s and 1930s period)
Robert Hitchcock, Indigenous peoples' rights and the struggle for survival, pages 480-86 in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Hunter-Gatherers
Minority Rights Group (UK)  Survival International (UK)  Cultural Survival (USA)  International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (Denmark)
See the Mornington Island page for a description of how western intrusion destroys traditional hunter-gatherer culture.

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