Human rights activism is rarely zero-sum, in the sense that we can only improve the rights protection of some through the imposition of an equal loss on others. More commonly we selectively improve protection for some without reducing protection for others. For example, if a judge protects a journalist’s free speech rights against government censorship, no one else’s rights protection is proportionally reduced. (This is zero-sum in the sense that more free speech means less censorship, but it’s not zero-sum on the level of different rights).
Zero-sum rights activism does occur, but only in the case of conflicting rights. For example, the journalist’s free speech rights may require restrictions on the right to privacy of public figures (or vice versa). However, most violations or restrictions of rights are not the result of conflicts between rights but rather the result of the non-rights motivated actions of governments or private agents.
We can rephrase this in economic terms. Given an initial allocation of goods among a set of individuals, a change to a different allocation that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off is called a Pareto improvement. An allocation is defined as Pareto efficient or Pareto optimal when no further Pareto improvements can be made (source).
This is common in human rights activism. We regularly intervene very selectively to improve the rights of some while leaving others unaffected. This is because there’s always a lack of resources and a lack of power to intervene non-selectively.
However, even if Pareto improvements can be a way forward for rights protection, they are not the ultimate goal of human rights activism. This ultimate goal is equal rights, and that’s not something you can reach with Pareto improvements. Inherent in Pareto is that you don’t leave anyone worse off, but equal rights may require that some people give up something: an equal right to private property may imply redistribution for example.
Another reason why Pareto improvements aren’t really compatible with human rights is the lack of urgency, priority or fairness in Pareto terms. Pareto improvements can make those who are already better off even better off. If you make the richest person in society better off or improve the rights protection of the best protected person in society, this can be a Pareto improvement, but that’s hardly the best way forward for human rights. Human rights would require making first the worst placed person better off, even if this means making the best placed person a bit worse off (which, however, is often not even necessary).
Pareto efficient is therefore not the best way to achieve a society with full respect for human rights, although a society that is not Pareto efficient – in the sense that some Pareto improvements with respect to rights protection are still possible and some people may be made better off without anyone else being made worse off – obviously does not fully respect human rights.
If we first need to make the worst off better off, then a better principle for human rights may be a variation of Rawls’ difference principle:
enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is already better is only justifiable if it also leads to enhanced protection of the rights of those whose protection is relatively worse.
For example, one could argue that a very bright person has a right to more education if it turns out that her enhanced education ultimately benefits others who are less educated (perhaps because this person will become a rights activist or because she will transmit her knowledge). Or one can argue that a higher standard of living for someone already well off will increase economic productivity which in turn benefits the poorer members of society. However, this difference principle will not, by definition, make everyone equally well off or guarantee everyone’s equal rights. But perhaps it will do a better job than Pareto efficiency.