Most books on the theory of human rights are written by and for scholars and are not easily accessible to other people. However, scholars are clearly not the most vulnerable part of humanity and may therefore find their theoretical insights not very useful. Those who would find these insights useful, namely victims (or possible victims) of human rights violations and grassroots activists trying to protect these victims, are often not attracted to scholarly works.
Now one may ask: how would those people benefit from a clear understanding of the theory of human rights? Would they not be better served by some practical, strategic and organizational guidance, financial assistance, etc.? The answer is that they need both, because even when a brutal leader seems to be violating people’s rights without explanation and without any compunction, if pressed he will offer some kind of justification for his actions. For example, he may try to explain that rights are not universal. Or that some rights may be sacrificed for the sake of other rights, or for some other “greater good”. A theoretical argumentation about universality and interdependence of rights may come in handy when questioning these justifications and opposing these violators.
Such a theoretical background to the system of human rights is what this book tries to offer. It profits from scholarly achievements and translates these into ordinary and accessible language aimed at a general public. But it goes further. In addition to a theoretical description of the most important characteristics of the system of human rights, it also offers a practical discussion of the means to make these rights real, to turn them from words into facts, from moral claims into everyday reality. After all, it is obvious that theoretical attacks on justifications of rights violations will never be enough.
The book is easily accessible to those of us who are not yet familiar with the intricacies of the system of human rights. This is not a highly specialized philosophical or legal treatise but a first, general introduction aimed at those who are promoting human rights, either because their own rights are violated or because they are in a position to help victims or to construct institutions that can protect rights and make them real. It can easily find its place between on the one hand the more specialized works and on the other hand the usual general public works on human rights that too often focus on specific instances of rights abuses at the expense of a more general approach focused on the logic in the system of human rights.
An inevitable result of this approach is a certain lack of depth. It is difficult to be at the same time wide-ranging, complete, accessible and profound, especially in a relatively small number of pages. Those who feel the need to go somewhat deeper after reading this book may find some interesting references to other books at the end.
One obvious characteristic of this book is its combination of lightness of tone and seriousness of purpose. Nuances, jargon and detailed philosophical, legal and political discussions are avoided as much as possible. The purpose is serious because I wanted to transmit certain messages about human rights to people who perhaps have not yet reflected deeply on the subject but whose rights may be routinely violated. In doing so, I wanted to offer these people a tool to protect themselves.
In the course of my narrative, there are many occasions where I mention attitudes, institutions and other mechanisms that are required to make rights real. As I have chosen not to repeat myself in a summary, it was only fair to offer the reader a tool to make his or her own summary. Therefore, every time I mention the reality of rights, words like reality, real, realization, etc. are put in italics.