Human Rights are of secondary importance by comparison with Human Obligations which are primary. The reason for this should be obvious; no one can receive a human right in practice (however many they may possess in theory) unless someone else has previously fulfilled a human obligation. Take the right of a child to be educated for example. Before this can be put into effect adults must have provided food, shelter and care for the child, a community of adults must have made provision for teachers, school buildings and educational materials and talented people must have chosen to pursue the career of teaching instead of something more financially lucrative. So a whole complex network of obligations fulfilled is a necessary condition for one right achieved.
Since the French Revolution of 1789 human rights discourse has increasingly come to dominate political and philosophical language at the expense of the overt idea of obligation. I propose to demonstrate, however, that obligation is not only covertly present but that it underpins every aspect of human rights discourse. Any campaign for this or that right essentially consists of people without power demanding that people with power fulfil their obligations towards them. With rare exceptions most such campaigns are easily defeatable. The powerful by definition seldom have anything to fear from the powerless. Nonetheless many rights campaigns do more or less succeed. The reason for this lies in the moral power of their appeal.
Say a minority struggles for equal access to university education. They cannot force their demand through against a reluctant State and the majority population has no vested interest in the success of this movement. Such a campaign can succeed only where a significant section of the majority population and of the ruling elites are convinced that the claim is just and that therefore they will concede to it even if that to some extent removes an advantage from themselves and their families. Which is to say that they have accepted that they are under an obligation and because they begin to fulfil it then the minority children receive in practice a right which they had only previously held in theory.
I used the word ‘just’ in the previous paragraph and it is under the guise of ‘justice’ that obligation is present at the heart of the Rights discourse. Few if any Rights campaign fail to argue that their demands are just and that resisting them would be an injustice. The belief here is that for them their rights are important but that for the audience outside the ranks of those who would benefit from the campaign justice is important. Indeed they would be ill served by a discourse entirely dominated by the language of rights. Returning to the previous example if the majority population thought that the slight reduction in access to university places for their children was a loss of rights more important to them than any notion of justice then the campaign would be lost. In fact the more people refer exclusively to rights and never to obligations the fewer rights the powerless can expect to have since the powerful will make no bones about defending their rights against all comers.
For a thousand years or more before Human Rights emerged as a major concept the virtue of Justice dominated the philosophy (if not the practice) of European social organisms. This was understood at that time to mean Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour And if you enquired what that due was it would be expressed in Christian language as- You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Matt 22:37-39) Whilst Western societies have moved to push the duties towards God aspect into the private sphere they have retained the duties towards neighbour part in the modern idea of justice. Without the religious impulse the idea of loving your neighbour as yourself has lost traction but has often been reformulated as a positive duty to not do or permit to be done to others what we would not wish to be done to ourselves.
As long as this notion of justice and therefore of obligation retains its grip on the values and norms of a society then the demands for Human Rights have some chance of success. Where this notion withers away to be replaced by nothing more than continuous challenges and conflicts between competing claims of Right then the prospects of success lie more in the camp of the powerful than in the camp of the just. In the public sphere of the Western democracies, however, there are very few voices which advocate the powerful claims of obligation and very many which talk only of rights. The widespread prevalence of notions of justice is something of a holdover from a previous epoch which persists due to a sort of inertia but which becomes more and more attenuated as each generation gets further and further away from the sources which first nourished it. If the West does not rediscover those sources and reinvigorate them then it can expect the consensus of understanding built upon common notions of justice and obligation to be replaced by a never ending series of culture wars where each side considers its own ‘rights’ and discountenances the other sides demands without any regard to abstract notions of justice. In such societies the race will always be won by the swift and the battle by the strong (cf Eccles 9:11) In fair societies, however, founded on Human Obligation sometimes the demands of justice enable the slow and the weak to win and it is by this token that we can recognise them as being truly civilised.