The state as the addressee of Human Rights

It is common to differentiate between people who have certain rights (possessors) and people who have the duty to ensure these rights (addresses). In the case of human rights, the possessors are the individual human beings and the addresses are states respectively their government. (cf. Nickel 2007; Menke & Pollmann 2007; Wellman 2011)

But is the addressee of human rights really mainly the state? There are two reasons to question this: First, the double role of the state is critical: The state is at the same time the addressee ensuring human rights and the violator of human rights. Second, if it is the state that is guaranteeing human rights there are no guaranteed human rights for stateless people. This is against the basic idea of human rights because, as Seylan Benhabib clarifies, „[…] individuals are rights-bearing not only in virtue of their citizenship within states but, in the first place, in virtue of their humanity.“ (Benhabib 2008, p 97)

Therefore, Carl Wellman puts forward a very important claim:

„[…] I rejected the view that moral human rights are essentially political, that they hold exclusively or primarily against nation-states. I argued that basal moral human rights […] hold primarily against all other persons, whether acting in their private or official capacities.“ (Wellman 2011, p 33)

Consequently, to focus on the moral perspective entails the necessity to understand the individual as both, possessor and addressee of human rights norms. The arguments that are put forward in order to strengthen the idea that the addressee of human rights is the state, are referring to the fact that a lot of articles in human rights declarations do hold directly against states and their governments. But this argument can be turned against itself by referring to the findings already made in the two former paragraphs: The existence of articles that bind states can be understood as another evidence, that these articles belong to the political perspective and do not belong to the moral basis of human rights and the therewith universality. As Wellman (c.f. 2011, pp 25–26) states, these political rights are derived from more fundamental basal rights. For Wellman, these basal moral human rights are “those that stand at the base of the system of moral human rights and from which more specific human rights are derived” (Wellman 2011, p 33). It is exactly this universal basis, which has to be defined and spreaded to improve the state of human rights worldwide.



Benhabib, S 2008, ‚The Legitimacy of Human Rights‘, Daedalus, vol. 137, no. 3, pp. 94-104.

Menke, C & Pollmann, A 2007, Philosophie der Menschenrechte zur Einführung, Junius, Hamburg.

Nickel, JW 2007, Making sense of human rights, Blackwell Pub., Malden, MA, Oxford.

Wellman, C 2011, The moral dimensions of human rights, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.

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