Individual rights and solidarity

By Dario Mujkic


That most rights we identify as human rights are individual rights is problematic. The obvious and most popular criticisms are that this framework of individual rights ensures “individual” is given primacy over the rights of groups or collectives, and that it guarantees the dominance of our rights over our responsibilities to each other. But while collective rights do seem to be a “human rights afterthought”, the existing framework does provide opportunities for the building and shaping of collectivism in society.

Human rights as individual rights

Most human rights recognised in international treaties or domestic statues are conferred on individuals. The rights recognised by the three pillars of international human rights – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – are mostly if not exclusively individual in nature. Even the language of the instruments assumes the preeminence of individual human beings, with rights recognised for “everyone”, “all peoples” and “every citizen”.

There are exceptions to this rule. The rights of groups are recognised in some instances by international treaties: the family unit is guaranteed protection, acts of genocide – a crime against “a national, ethnical, racial or religion group” – are prohibited and the right to collectively bargaining is recognised, for example.

But the domain of human rights is mostly the domain of the individual. In fact, the very concept of universal human rights is said to be inherently linked to ideas that see the individual as something existing with inherent and universal rights. The most famous proponent of this theory was John Locke. According to David Stamos, the genesis of: “the modern consensus concept of universal human rights, the idea at the core of documents such as the American Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea that all humans have a set of natural and equal rights they were born with and that cannot be given up or taken away” is, it is generally agreed, found in Locke’s writings.

The idea of the individual as a thing that possesses certain rights by his or her very existence is centuries-old, and it is an idea that has influenced (and is arguably the genesis of) the creation and development of what might be termed, as Stamos puts it, the “modern concept of human rights”.

Problems associated with the individual rights framework

The most apparent problem with a rights system steeped in individual rights is what Karl Marx recognised as the capacity under this system for the isolation (and subsequent separation) of the individual from other individuals, particularly where the exercise of the rights of one individual might be said to somehow conflict with the exercise of the rights of others. If, for example, there is insufficient clothing and shelter for us both, your right for clothing and shelter and an adequate standard of living inevitably conflicts with mine. Of course, we might share what there is and thus resolve the conflict (hopefully to our satisfaction) but the conflict is nevertheless there.

Another criticism of individual rights often advocated is their emphasis on the rights of the individual over the obligations that individual may have to others. This, in turn, can be damaging to the community of individuals.

Fundamentally though, with no consideration of group or collective rights, individual rights can become meaningless for individuals over time. Take Michael Igantieff’s example: the right to speak a particular language is meaningless if the language has died out. This might be termed a libertarian view of the importance of recognising collective rights. The rights of groups can be said to be important – in fact often critical – to the ability of individuals to exercise their individual rights. This is implicit, as Miodrag Jovanovic points out in his recent work Collective Rights: A Legal Theory, in the idea that the international crime of genocide is a crime against the members of a national group, such that the genocidal killing of a single member of the group is distinguished, and presumably worse, than the non-genocidal murder of any other individual. The right is therefore important not necessarily because of the protection it confers on individuals, but because it protects the group.

Solidarity as the solution to the problem

We should not deny the above criticisms of a framework of rights steeped in individualism. But instead of arguing for a new framework of rights – a collectivist framework that better balances individual and group rights, or even protects the rights of collectives more vigorously than the rights of individuals – collectivist values and rights can be developed and strengthened by the collective exercise and development of individual rights. This is to be done through the formation of solidarities.

The development of solidarity ensures subsequent interaction with rights not individually but collectively. But more critically, solidarity – and collective action exercised through solidarity – is necessary if we are to challenge and change existing structures or power relations that constrain the ability or capability of individuals or groups to enjoy particular rights.

If we see solidarity-building as the generation and shaping of shared values and identifications, we can in many cases use the framework of human rights as a starting-point for its creation and development. This is often done already by those creating solidarities and agitating for change, if not always consciously or openly.

A community organiser working with public housing tenants to collectively campaign for better housing or better servicing is likely to use discussions about an adequate standard of living or adequate housing to build solidarity between individuals. Workplace organising campaigns will often focus on individual rights that may be enjoyed or exercised collectively: the right to an adequate standard of living guaranteed through fair terms and conditions of employment, or the right to join a union and participate in its activities. These individual rights are then used to establish the foundation for solidarity.

Once solidarity between a group or groups is formed, we might expect the theoretical concerns about individual rights to fall away, at least in part. Suddenly, individuals are no longer isolated and there is a form through which we can expect to mediate conflicts that might occur with the exercise of a particular individual right or rights. The members of the group enjoying solidarity can now be expected to concern themselves not only with their individual rights but also the rights of others in that group, and their own responsibilities to the group as a whole. And of course, our capability to exercise the right in question will be enhanced, since we are now pursuing its exercise together, collectively.

With solidarity we determine our own human rights capabilities

The worth of any human right depends on a person’s ability to exercise it or obtain the benefit that is meant to derive from it. While there exists a recognised right to “adequate food, clothing and housing”, there are many who will go without a meal, or without shelter tonight, including in Australia. Essentially, to them, this “right” is meaningless.

Benjamin Gregg has advocated a system of human rights that allows or creates conditions in which “groups and individuals at the bottom of social hierarchies, and oppressed minorities and socially marginalised groups” can “win for themselves the human rights they want”. Building solidarities in our society can do this – it can help communities win, for themselves, the human rights that they want (but don’t yet have). In this way, while the framework of individual rights remains, we no longer interact with it in isolation from those around us.