One class I am taking during my last quarter at DU (almost done!) is the Discrimination, Minorities, and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the major focus of the course is the debate on individual versus group, or collective, rights. Human rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, refer to rights as applied to individuals by virtue of being human. Therefore, opponents to the idea of collective rights argue that since individuals are human and individuals are the ones who comprise a group, there is no need to make a distinction between individuals and groups. All individuals, regardless of the group they belong to, are subject to the human rights as outlined in major international documents. On the other side, proponents to the idea of collective rights emphasize that there is often a failure to recognize and celebrate differences among distinct populations and as a result, certain groups consistently have their rights violated. These certain groups must then be afforded additional protections to make sure their rights as individuals, and as group members, are protected.
While I am able to understand the position on each side, I see the problem elsewhere. The issue is not whether human rights belong to individuals, to groups, or to both; the major issue is who falls under the category of a human. The reason certain people are consistently discriminated against is the fact that dominant groups often do not see them as fully humans. If someone is not viewed as completely human, whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, age, or nationality, that someone will not be regarded as deserving the rights afforded to humans. She will be treated as less than human and so will the entire group she belongs to. If that individual’s rights are not respected, why should we expect that the rights of the group she belongs to will be respected?
In my opinion, a focus on the debate about individual versus collective rights and on creating additional conventions and documents to protect these is a focus away from the real issue. Therefore, even though international documents on human rights are important to the further recognition of these rights, much more needs to be done in order for all people to be regarded as human and treated as such.