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The Limits of Human Rights


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Contributor(s): Professor Chetan Bhatt

Released on 7 December 2010.

"Where do human rights come from? Are they universal across time and space, or do they, as Professor Chetan Bhatt asks, ""stop at the door of culture""? Should human rights organisations defend everyone, or have some persons forfeited their right to protection? When it was announced that Muslim cleric and prominent Al Qaeda spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki was to be the subject of a ""targeted killing"", a curious dilemma arose for human rights organisations.

Targeted killings – effectively, state-endorsed assassinations – are not unprecedented, but Al-Awlaki is an unusual case: he is an American citizen, currently believed to be hiding in Yemen. Can the President of the United States order the execution of one of his own citizens without due process, without prosecution in a public trial?

In the US, the American Civil Liberties Union and Center for Constitutional Rights launched a lawsuit protesting that the executive order against al-Awlaki was illegal. In response, members within those organisations protested that it was not the role of human rights organisations to militate in favour of persons who themselves had no respect for human rights. In this internal contradiction, a serious ethical situation has arisen. What limits are there to the defence of human rights?"

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