The moral or ethical idea behind human rights is that, in all we do, we should respect the basic humanity, the human dignity, of the persons affected by our decisions and actions. This is especially true for governments because they can use force in pursuit of legitimate social goals. ‘Human rights’ describe fundamental entitlements that fl ow from moral ‘autonomy’ (the sense of having consciousness and a capacity for choice) and the capacity for suffering that characterises each individual person. These can be distinguished from other more specifi c rights and duties (legal, cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual, moral, historical and so on) which distinguish us from each other. Human rights aim to answer the question: in what ways must others behave or not behave in order for someone to be treated as an individual human being in whatever he or she does or in whatever situation he or she may be in? A common way of putting it is to say that there is an inherent ‘dignity’ in all human beings which needs to be protected, and this is the purpose of human rights.

An important point is that human rights apply to human beings not because they are good or worthy, but because they are human. Human rights may, indeed, be important because they aim to reduce suffering but that is not the point. The decisive issue is that human rights are a necessary part of recognising that the being you are dealing with is a human. A diffi cult consequence of this is that even those who, for good reason, are unpopular or believed to be wicked, have human rights.