In this essay I will focus on one specific claim that Allen Buchanan makes in the course of his powerfully argued account of human rights, namely, that to understand the system of international legal human rights, we must acknowledge not only their “well-being function” but also a second function that he calls their “status egalitarian function.” Thus, on the one hand, the human rights system “protects people from harms and abuses inflicted by their own states and it requires all states to provide the goods and services characteristic of the modern welfare state,” thereby securing at least a minimum level of wellbeing for all. But according to Buchanan it does more than this. It further “exhibits a robust commitment to affirming and protecting the equal basic moral status of all individuals,” or, as he also puts it, it serves “to foster the public recognition of equal basic status for all people, in all societies.” Buchanan believes that it is a common fault of existing theories of human rights, such as James Griffin’s, that they fail to recognize this status egalitarian function, and are therefore unable to make proper sense of international human rights practice. In contrast, the status egalitarian function occupies center stage in the theory of human rights that Buchanan presents in The Heart of Human Rights. My aim here is to throw doubt on the claim that promoting status equality is a key purpose of international human rights.
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