HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy


Human rights are rights that are invariant with respect to conventions, institutions, culture, or religion. One concern about such rights is the problem of parochialism, the question of whether human rights can plausibly be of global reach and thus justify actions even against societies that do not readily endorse relevant UN documents, or in whose culture those rights are not supported. Plausible responses to this problem also have to explain why the language of rights (rather than, say, goals) is appropriate here, and offer a substantive account of what duties (if any) accompany these rights. This study seeks to meet these challenges by transferring central elements of the approach to domestic justice in Rawls’ Political Liberalism to the global level. Crucial to my approach is the idea that humanity collectively owns the earth, and that it is implicit in the global political and economic order that individuals are seen as co-owners, in a manner parallel to how it is implicit in a constitutional democracy that individuals are seen as free and equal citizens. Human rights emerge as guarantees for co-owners to make the imposition of the global political and economic order, and its erection on commonly owned territory, acceptable to them, in a manner parallel to how principles of domestic justice make a political association of a different sort (the state) acceptable to free and equal citizens. This account will hardly serve to arouse passions for human rights activism. (Inquiries into foundational questions of morality rarely arouse passions.) However, if successful, it can contribute to an increase in the intellectual standing of human rights, and in particular address critics who claim that the language of “rights” is inappropriate in contexts in which we talk about “human rights,” as well as critics who argue that accounts of human rights are bound to be parochial.


Risse, Mathias. "Common Ownership as a Basis for Human Rights: Political Not Metaphysical." Conference Paper and KSG Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP07-008, February 2007.