We've been having an ongoing debate in class about the transformative potential of human rights. On one level, documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms represent some universal values that almost anyone can endorse. The Charter's protection of equality, fundamental freedoms, and life liberty and security of persons is certainly worth defending. The growth in human rights struggles is arguably grown out of three parallel movements: the civil rights revolutions that grew out of the 18th century revolutions (freedom of speech, religion etc), political rights revolutions that grew out of the 19th and early 20th century democratic revolutions, and the social rights demands that arose after World War II and arguably ended in the 1970s.
C.B. Macpherson argues in his powerful essay "The Problems of Human Rights in the Late Twentieth Century" that human rights, while certainly an object of transformation when tied to political struggle, are also limited by two opposing forces: the right to property and the primacy of individual rights. For Macpherson, human rights struggles are limited in liberal societies because they remove the individual from larger collective societies. As liberal societies also value property over all other rights, there is a permanent struggle between civil, political and social rights and the economic structures that sustain the current economic system. Given these tensions, Macpherson asks, can human rights be transformative?