Various kinds of rights talk have existed for a long time, but it has been argued (see here, for instance) that the concept of human rights as we know it is only as old as the 1970s. It isn't timeless or universal, and I don't think we can explain why something is wrong by appealing to a human right that it violates. Rather, we should identify rights (if we're going to do so at all) by thinking about what is unjust or unacceptable. And I think that we should try to identify human rights and protect them. Basically I think the work of such groups as Human Rights Watch (formerly Helsinki Watch) is valuable and that they should not feel that they ought to change their names (no offense to Helsinki!). To my ears these are pretty minimal claims, and they might not sound worth defending. But my sense is that they need to be defended.
I won't go into why I have this sense here (although I could if anyone wanted me to), nor will I spend much time on arguments against rights talk. Instead, I'll mention a couple of apparent problems with the notion of human rights, and say a little about why I don't think these are major concerns for a certain kind of metaphysically innocent talk about rights.
Tommi Uschanov, in a comment on a previous post, brought up this passage from Raimond Gaita, and suggested that talk about violating someone's rights would be right at home in the list of parodies:
[...] if one puts in the mouth of the remorseful person many of the philosophical accounts of what makes an obligation a moral obligation or a principle a moral principle, of the nature of morality and of its authority, we get parody. 'My God what I have done? I have violated the social compact, agreed behind a veil of ignorance.' 'My God what have I done? I have ruined my best chances of flourishing.' 'My God what have I done? I have violated rational nature in another.' 'My God what have I done? I have diminished the stock of happiness.' 'My God what have I done? I have violated my freely chosen principles.' An answer must surely be given to why, at one of the most critical moments of moral sobriety, so many of the official accounts of what it is for something to be of moral concern, the accounts of the connection between obligation and what it means to wrong someone, appear like parodies. (Gaita, Good and Evil, 2nd edn., p. xxi)I agree that "My God, what have I done? I have violated someone's human rights" sounds like a parody. But all of these examples seem to sound ridiculous because they substitute an account of why an act might be wrong for a description of the wrong act. Think of murder. What belongs after "What have I done?" is something like "I have killed a man. Someone's husband. Someone's father. Someone's son. I have ended, taken, a human life." Perhaps what belongs is also a certain amount of incoherence. Weeping and wailing would not be out of place. Rational accounts of why murder is wrong would be. I think that Gaita has a point, but it would be unfair (or simply a mistake) to dismiss all attempts to explain the wrongness of killing out of hand.
I think that killing people is always bad (that doesn't sound strong enough, but I hesitate to say 'evil' because it sounds both melodramatic (and what does that say?) and religious), even if sometimes it is the least bad thing one can do. Why it is bad is hard to say, just as why life is good is hard to say. Killing someone harms them, of course (at least usually), but it also harms the world. It is like an anti-miracle. So it isn't only bad because of what it does to the victim. And reference to the victim's rights will not explain what is so bad about it. Such reference is only a kind of shorthand for talking about this badness. But shorthand has its uses.
What about rights violations other than murder? Rape and torture are morally similar to murder, I think. Arguably not as bad, but in their worst forms probably just as bad, and maybe even worse. I don't know how much sense it makes (nor how decent it is) to make comparisons like this among them, which is partly why I put them in the same ballpark or category. I'm not sure that anything else belongs here, that anything else is as bad as murder, rape, and torture, but it doesn't follow that the only rights are those not to suffer these things. As to what other rights there might be, I can't do better than Mill's idea that rights concern the essentials of human well-being. What these are needs to be seen.
Some are obvious. Not to everyone, of course, but almost nothing is obvious to babies and animals. It takes education to learn to see what's obvious. This does not mean that it isn't obvious after all. It just means that what is obvious is relative in some sense. 'Obvious' means something like very easy to discern, but discernment is not possible for every being (a slug could not have a discerning eye for fake Dalis) and takes training, education, or acculturation for everyone. Discernment, even of the very easy kind, is for the connoisseur. The very basic requirements of human well-being ought to be pretty obvious things, but a) they need not therefore be obvious to everyone, and b) they might only be obvious after they have been pointed out. This is, I think, how Wittgenstein describes Indian mathematics somewhere. A demonstration is written or drawn and the words "Look at this" are added. Once seen there is no need for any further proof of the truth demonstrated, but the demonstration presupposes that what is there to be seen will not already have been seen by everyone. And it might take some looking even then to see it, I imagine.