Human Rights – “Lives Rights” – Children’s Rights



The article attempts to add a new direction to the debate on human rights by looking at it from four perspectives: practice, development, everyday’s life and political responsibility of social work. This aims not least on working towards the foundation of a fourth generation of human rights, supplementing the generally accepted three generations. At stake is the genuine acknowledgement of social human rights in everyday’s life.

Human rights are often looked at if they are – be it in reality or by way of perception – breached. To speak of perceived or real breaches is certainly often superfluous, because it is obvious that certain actions and situations are even a matter of disrespecting the most fundamental and inalienable human right: the one to live, i.e. to mere existence of the human being. However, in many cases the situation lacks such clarity: definitions and practices are controversial, and furthermore it is often controversial whether certain issues, though they may be obviously being inhumane, are actually human-rights-related questions. The reason for such statement, possibly surprising for some of the readers, is simple:  human rights have their origin in protecting citizens against arbitrary abuses of the states’ power against the (world) citizens. In other words human rights had been linked to the state, as Weber says the only entity upholding the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.

In such a reading private actions – and these are also acts of companies in global markets or actions of fanatical fundamentalist religious communities[2] – are strictly irrelevant to human rights. There is another dimension to the fact that these rights are nearly only issued in case of violation: both, the rather abstract reading of human rights and the consideration of individual violations reveals again and again that addressing these rights is bay and large detached from everyday’s life. At least apparently they do not affect the ordinary insanity: conflicts repeatedly preventing in different ways in everyday’s life that people can develop with all its facets of personality.

Admittedly this is a rather complicated and complex situation. But it is also a fundamental question, concerning the fundamental difficulty of defining human rights. Narrow definitions look at very obvious “cases” – even if one has to admit that the two declarations of human rights claiming universality (resolution 217 A [III] of the General Assembly on 10 December 1948: Universal Declaration of Human Rights; – 7/8/13; Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, Aug. 5, 1990, UN GAOR, World Conf on Hum Rts, 4th… sess, Agenda Item 5, UN Doc A/CONF.157/PC/62/Add.18 [1993]; – 7/8/13) are in fact not really universal. This is also true and clearly the case for the UN Declaration, which contains a strong affirmation of the capitalist mode of produciton (see below and Presentation Narrowing the Gap Between the World’s Richest and Poorest Contribution for the German wave GLOBAL MEDIA FORUM 2011). However, a broad definition runs not only the risk of including too many aspects, but at the same time it also opens the door for arbitrariness. Anyway, it is important to focus on the importance of human rights in every day’s life, going beyond the protection of mere existence. The development up to now is commonly seen as characterized by three generations:

The first generation concerns “negative rights,” in the sense that their respect requires that the state do nothing to interfere with individual liberties, and correspond roughly to the civil and political rights.

The second generation … requires positive action by the state to be implemented, as is the case with most social, economic and cultural rights. The international community is now embarking upon a third generation … which may be called “rights of solidarity”

(Vasak, Karel, 1977: A 30-Year Struggle. The Sustained Efforts to Give Force of Law to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; in: The UNESCO Courier. A Window open on the World; Paris: UNESCO: 30/11: 29/32; here: 29; cf. Herrmann, Peter (forthcoming): Justice and Law Today: On the Translation of General Ideas on Justice into Claims for Security and Responsibility; in: Herrmann: God, Rights, Law and a Good Society [Writings on Philosophy and Economy of Power, 2]; Bremen/Oxford: EHV Academic press, 2012)

It is fundamental that a fourth stage is missing – and such stage is actually difficult to imagine within contemporary paradigms of social sciences in general: the social law and the socio-economic self-FORMATION law in a very genuine sense. It is justified to see the debate on human rights as being firmly based in the tradition of positive law – be it in a positive or in a negative way. However, it has to be seen that

[p]ositive law assumes an ordered social context that exhibits certain deficiencies: it envisages more desirable – an ideal – ordering of the context; it prescribes the steps to be taken in order to move the actual towards the ideal; and it orders that these measures be instituted. That is, positive law is at once expository, normative prescriptive, advisory, and imperative. But it is positive law as a means to an end …

(Jenkins, Iredell, 1980: Social Order and the Limits of Law. A Theoretical Essay; Princeton: Princeton University Press: 75)

This can only be understood in the context of society and socialization. Significant is the statement of Norbert Elias, who points out that people can only be understood as a process in its ongoing development, and he also suggests that this orientation is constantly undermined by the overwhelming tendency to push all processes into some form of structures (see Elias, Norbert, 1980/81: Social Process Models on multiple levels, in: Elias, Norbert: Essays On Sociology and the Humanities III; Dublin. University College Dublin Press, 2009: 40-42).


Of course, structural thinking knows as well thoughts about development, but these are fundamentally shaped by a very particular and peculiar understanding: it assumes an indispensable link between two areas:

  • First it is stated that there is a (more or less) straightforward development to “modern” societies – this is idealised as enlightenment, in reality it is about the development of capitalist modes of production;
  • Secondly, development is then also increasingly about development of human rights. On the one hand this is seen as development of human rights themselves – i.e. they are taken as dynamically expanding, steadily albeit very slowly; on the other hand “successful development” is indentified with modern societies and it is suggested that they are guaranteeing human rights – certainly is not denied: “unfortunately” we would find “slips” within and even caused by the capitalist system, but this is just considered as an exception and mostly seen as “bad practice”, which can actually only be found in the countries of the global South.[3]

Important is not so much the accuracy of the proposed relationships – which is of course highly questionable. A key point is more a question of the methodology (see Herrmann / O’Leary, in preparation: Human Rights – Search for a Fourth Generation): Apart from the fact that the underlying understanding is highly individualistic – thus following very much the tradition of European Enlightenment – another problem has to be seen in the fact that certain human rights are faded out by a structural-methodological pattern. First, these are everyday issues – as mentioned earlier, human rights issues are only then on the agenda where we find breaches in extreme situations. Secondly, however, the concept of development itself implies a certain ignorance: underdevelopment means lack of development of human rights or lack of human rights awareness and therefore “underdeveloped people” need to be “developed” in order to be able to accept and live these rights.

Of course, this is an exaggerated and simplified version of a complex problem. But such simplification is useful to clarify extremely important questions:

  • Human rights are in this way conceptually reduced and seen as passive rights – and only “fully developed human beings” can really take full advantage of these rights (of course it is left open who these “fully developed human beings” are;
  • they are only taken individualistically – as only the capitalist formation represents such “full development” and provides completely developed awareness in terms of the underlying idea of man.

Just a quick note on the last point must do suffice: The UN Declaration points in Article 25.1 out:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

In other words, realistically, the only way of full involvement is to participate in the global capitalist system.


Formulated provocatively, social work is facing an impossible task – the squaring of the cycle. On the one hand it is of course important to recognise the basic human rights in the given understanding, aiming on securing their realisation. But at the same time we are facing the necessity of engaging in the balancing act of criticizing these rights at the level of the underlying methodology and the subsequent definitions. Two aspects have to play a particularly important role – in the following they are only addressed as questions for future research and action:

The first is development of practice: human rights must be understood more as matter of social human practice. This means in a global perspective the need to acknowledge other modes of production; in national perspectives it means to allow other ways of life – not only as matter of multiculturalism, but more in the sense of different understandings of the production and reproduction of everyday’s life. Obviously, this includes especially the recognition of such modes of work and lifestyles as they are claimed by some ethnic minorities. And importantly we are here also facing the particular issues and conflicts: are such rights compatible with requirements of gender equality – as for instance some issues of gender equality in the modes of production of Gypsies, Islamic communities, etc. – Mentioning the possible tensions is here only meant to raise issues, not more and not less.

The second issue is development. It is a challenge as we have to ask and answer how we are dealing in this light with “non-development” and “not-developed people”. In this formulation, this seems to be sufficiently provocative to clarify the issue at stake: the conceptual difficulties that do exist in dealing with interpretations presented by certain groups. These are considerations that are partly already arising in official discussions in connection with the so-called rights of the third generation. In the present case, however, the solidarity rights must be understood correctly: we are talking about the right to develop and practice the social, and not only realise oneself within a defined social context. That means both “rights for the weaker members of society”, but it also means to overcome fundamentally the concept of weakness, gong much beyond ideas of support. One of the issues that is obviously conflictual is the religious requirement of self-determination, which then potentially threatens the right to life under certain circumstances. Children are just one important group that requires solidarity in this sense.

Thirdly, it is about daily life: All these considerations need to be anchored in everyday life – not only with regard to the daily lives of the many whose rights are obviously violated, but also the matters that are still leading to structural “hidden disadvantages”. Actually these infringements are not so secret at all. An example that is not sufficiently seen as breach of basic human rights is the disadvantage of women as it finds its expression unequal pay. A permanently occurring question has to ask if it can be justifiable that collective agreements are not possible anymore and it has to evaluate in which ways they are increasingly undermined.

Fourth, the question of political responsibility must be re-visited. This refers in particular to processes of education. The responsible citizen, capable and ready to participate is certainly a widely used catchword. But it is at the same time also a question that needs to be considered in normal daily life of social work practice. This means as well that it is about the normal daily life of people – even the ordinary people. Change of society should not be moved to infinity by the fact that one cares first only about “really serious cases”. Just because a negative comparison is ridiculous, it is important that such extreme breaches can not least happen, because we easily ignore minor injuries – and this means also that we have to take the violations of the small ones, the children more serious. We easily assume a natural superiority of the West, the adult , the men of the professions etc. And we forget them equally easily, because we often emphasise the rights of “the disadvantaged” without further reflection: multiculturalism, anti-globalization, freedom of religion, transsexuality, the conflictuality  – important issues to reflect upon without neglecting the highly conflictual, and often explosive content.

And yet it moves – Galileo Galilei supposedly said those words. It does not matter whether he said it or not. Social work, generally, the social professions have finally (again) realise that they have to move more and they have to move in more fundamental ways.

[1]            Rough translation of an article, published in Sozial Extra 7|8, 2013

[2]            One may think of gender policies in the name of Roman-Catholic fundamentalism – this saves from reflecting on more or less distant regions, for instance dominated by Islam.

[3]            Such regionalisation is indirectly suggesting that the real reason can be found within these countries.


Inserisci i tuoi dati qui sotto o clicca su un'icona per effettuare l'accesso:

Logo di

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Chiudi sessione /  Modifica )

Foto Twitter

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Twitter. Chiudi sessione /  Modifica )

Foto di Facebook

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Facebook. Chiudi sessione /  Modifica )

Connessione a %s...