One significant new development in the debate on rights, going back as far back as the natural rights tradition of Grotius and Pufendorf down to John Rawls’s Theory of Justice , is the new approach and definition of what formerly-called ‘natural rights’ actually entail. Globalisation has highlighted the blatant social injustice prevailing between so-called ‘industrialised’ countries and ‘developing’ ones. The Lockean notion that ‘life, liberty and property’ summarise the legitimate aspirations of every human being, or possibly, every human being having access to property or already enjoying its benefits through farming or tenancy, is being questioned and challenged in the light of a third of the world population being reduced to scraping a living and hence effectively deprived of both ‘freedom’ and ‘property’. What Locke had in mind when he referred to the general concept of ‘life’ is the right for every individual not to be subjected to inhuman treatment in the name of political expediency. This is a politicisation of the originally Christian conception of ‘life’ as a gift from God to his creatures and the concomitant duty for everyone to protect and respect the life of others as equal members of the same species. Locke’s more mundane preoccupation was, in fact, to secure the rights of propertied white Englishmen, potentially threatened by a tyrannical regime.
The contemporary conception of rights has moved from a narrow European context to a far more universal concern for human welfare, applying equally to both genders and all ethnic groups. There is little point in claiming political rights when one’s fundamental needs are not even met on a daily basis. For this reason, political theorists such as Amartya Sen, Peter Singer or Martha Nussbaum have shifted their arguments for rights to the defence of fundamental needs such as access to water, shelter and adequate nourishment. In this new context, it is not up to the starving to claim their right to be fed but it is a duty incumbent on rich countries to take action and provide the necessary humanitarian aid, in the first instance. It is, indeed, a sad reflection of a deeply divided world when political theorists have to redefine the very concept of ‘rights’ and bring it down to the most basic conditions of human life, in the hope that the most privileged sections of the human race will be prompted to alleviate the poverty of their less fortunate fellow human beings.