This year is the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The language of human rights has been around for so long that we often take it for granted. When Thomas Jefferson declared in 1776 that we are endowed by our creator with inalienable rights, this was still a novel idea. In 1789, French revolutionaries picked up the thread. In 1791, the U.S. ratified a Bill of Rights. And after World War II, in 1948, the UN issued its Declaration.
People have not always believed that it is self-evident that human beings have equal rights and inherent worth. In the Middle Ages, morality was understood in terms of the natural law woven into the universe by God. This included a variety of hierarchical structures. Fathers and monarchs had an absolute right to rule over families and kingdoms. And slavery was permitted.
The modern idea of individual rights teaches otherwise. Today we think that slavery is wrong, that cruel fathers should be jailed, and that tyrannical governments can be overthrown because these practices violate human rights.
The anti-authoritarian aspect of the theory of rights worries some skeptics. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham once claimed that the idea of natural rights is “nonsense on stilts.” Bentham wanted to promote social welfare. But he feared the revolutionary spirit of the idea of human rights.
Defenders of human rights maintain, however, that social welfare cannot come at the expense of individual dignity. Our rights transcend society and the state. Human rights language thus often appeals to religious ideas. If all persons are created in the image of God, for example, this spark of the divine gives us a sacred valued that the state cannot violate.
Of course, theological arguments won’t be accepted by everyone. That is why the UN Declaration avoids religious language. Article 1 of the declaration states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
This does not say who endows us with value. It simply states that our rights are a natural fact.
While avoiding theological questions, the preamble to the UN Declaration gives us an argument about the basis of human rights. The declaration explains that recognition of rights is essential for peace and justice. It states that contempt for human rights results in “barbarous acts.” And it points out that rebellions break out when rights are violated.
This is a pragmatic account. Human rights are valuable as the basis of a just and stable world. This idea may fall short of the soaring spirit of the theological argument. But it is useful for finding common ground and developing global consensus.
Unfortunately, disagreements remain. And claims about human rights are often politicized.
Last week, for example, the Trump administration singled out human-rights abuses in Nicaragua. The White House explained that its executive order sanctioning Nicaragua “demonstrates the president’s strong leadership in the Western Hemisphere, defense of democratic principles, and protection of human rights.”
At the same time, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee claimed that the Trump administration is violating human rights at the U.S.-Mexico border. She said, “The tear-gassing of women and children at the border is an atrocity. It’s a violation of human rights.”
Earlier this year, the United States withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council because that entity is too critical of Israel. The other nations who refuse to participate on that council are Iran, Eritrea and North Korea. Today the U.S. is leading a UN effort to condemn North Korean human rights violations, while the North Koreans protest.
Ideological disputes about human rights persist because human rights are such powerful tools for criticizing states and government. And despite disagreements, global consensus about human rights continues to grow.
We still have a long way to go. The nations of the world continue to violate human rights. And human rights language can be used as propaganda. But the idea that human beings have inherent dignity gives us a foundation upon which to build a just and peaceful world.
If you go
The Human Rights Coalition is holding its annual human rights celebration on Dec. 8 at Fresno State from 9 a.m. to noon. The topic this year is “The Rights of Children.” Further Information here: http://www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/ethicscenter/documents/HRC%20Day%20Flier%202018.pdf.
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