Human rights, the basic idea that all human beings are born with universal, inalienable and indivisible rights, has undergone a remarkable global spread since the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Similarly, there is an ever-expanding amount of individuals and organizations working in the field of humanitarianism, to advance these rights. This chapter discusses the conceptualization of human rights over time and their place in disciplines like philosophy, law and the social sciences. From international law perspective, many human rights treaties have acquired global relevance. Empirically, on the other hand, there are vast differences in the degree of rights realization within and between nations. In addition, it sets out how human rights have been institutionalized, internationally, regionally but also within nation states, with a key role for civil society in these processes at all levels. A central paradox of human rights is the fact that they theoretically and legally rely on nation states for their protection and promotion, whilst these same states are often the greatest human rights abusers. The two examples discussed in this context, the Responsibility to Protect and Human Rights Cities, illustrate how human rights empirically cannot rely on nation states alone, but can only be fully realized by the combined forces of global governance and local adaption and protection. In all, human rights are both a driver and a product of globalization, and can serve as a countervailing power to its excesses. In order to deliver upon this promise of global justice, however, it is important that human rights take into account a variety of worldviews, religions and cultures worldwide in both processes of rights agenda-setting and in their implementation.
Using the example of the Dutch discussions on the Disability Convention as a point of departure, this contribution takes an empirical perspective upon the fragmentation and integration of human rights law, from the vantage point of human rights users. Fragmentation, in human rights, can be considered both “horizontally” and “vertically” – horizontally as more and more human rights treaties are formulated, for instance at the international level, and vertically as the substantive content of human rights is interpreted by an ever-increasing amount of institutions. Integration, on the other hand, is the move towards a comprehensive approach towards sources of human rights law and the maximum inclusion of all human rights holders. This empirical contribution adds two perspectives to the literature on human rights fragmentation and integration. For one, it argues that, rather than being two mutually exclusive processes, human rights fragmentation and integration are essentially two sides of the same coin. Second, in contrast to much recent literature, it does not regard the merits of this interplay between fragmentation and integration from the perspective of states or of particular institutions, but rather takes the vantage point of human rights users. Discussing the consequences of the interplay between human rights fragmentation and integration for human rights users cannot be done in the abstract, but calls for a grounded approach. Here, a grounded theory of fragmentation/integration from a users’ perspective is illustrated based upon the engagement of one particular group of human rights users (people living with disabilities and organizations representing them), with one particular set of rights (disability rights, in particular accessibility) in one particular context (that of the Netherlands). A detailed analysis of these debates shows how drawing up a human rights treaty is merely the beginning of a process in which the rights concerned need to be mobilized, and renegotiated, in a wide variety of social fields – whether levels of government or otherwise. Ensuring legal enforcement becomes a matter of multi-level politics. At different levels key institutions (the executive, the legislature, the judiciary) offer different interpretations of what the Convention actually calls for and who has to do this. In the national negotiations, subsequently, actors refer to the interpretations at the European or international level that best suit their interests. This constant interplay between domestic and international actors, with a range of interpretations to work with, can, in the end, lead to implementation that is meaningful for those who carry such high expectations of “yet another treaty”.