Human rights: a reality check

919PxBmnG1LMost law undergraduates are familiar with Jeremy Bentham’s dismissal of natural rights as “nonsense on stilts”.  This is a slight misrepresentation of what he said, which was that “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts“. But let’s take the stilts away and consider rights in their ordinary sense. They furnish not only arguments before courts, but reasons for going to war and toppling whole regimes. As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari points out in his recent book:

No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya, and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations.

So, might the author have added, are “citizens”, since in a reality without cities and states, it is a non-sequitur to talk of citizens. Continue reading