Virtues are not enough.

Author:Goldenziel, Jill I.
Position:Response to article by Michael Ignatieff in this issue, p. 1

What is the relationship between human rights and ordinary virtues? Michael Ignatieff's provocative lecture raises a question older than human rights law itself. Many would argue that the concepts of human rights enshrined in international human rights law have ancient origins, based on concepts of right and wrong identified in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Koran, and other holy texts. (1) If this is true, the relationship between human rights law and ordinary virtues seems clear: human rights law is the secular codification of the human behavior universally idealized by religious traditions. Human rights, then, are equivalent to the ordinary virtues prescribed by the Divine and developed by humans for millennia.

Most of the world's states have signed the major human rights conventions. Regardless of states' official treatment of religion or the religious beliefs of their citizens, however, their domestic laws and practices may not reflect these rights. Yet lack of recognition of rights, qua rights, does not necessarily mean disrespect for human dignity. Just as Western countries accept that certain treatment of humans is a "right," other states frame the same concepts as "virtues." Framing rights as virtues can make them more palatable to states and their citizens where human rights are not legalized. However, promoting human rights as ordinary virtues is insufficient to guarantee durable human rights. The goal of human rights law is to have human rights recognized qua rights, not just good behavior but as duties enforceable by law. Framing rights as virtues can achieve improvement in the human condition, but only legalized, enforceable rights will have lasting, irreversible impact.

The case of refugees offers an instructive example of the utility of framing rights as virtues. Following the US's invasion of Iraq in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled into Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. In all of these countries, asylum law is weak or absent. At that time, the term "refugee" was commonly only applied to Palestinians, usually with a derogatory connotation. (2) Early in the war, the international community paid little heed to fleeing Iraqis, leaving host countries to aid and assist them. At first, host country governments refused to call any Iraqis "refugees." Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon began to refer to Iraqis as "welcome guests." Countries spun hosting Iraqis as an opportunity to assist Arab brothers in need...

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