What Are “Human Rights”?
“THROUGHOUT the world today, in free nations and in totalitarian countries as well, there is a preoccupation with the subject of human freedom, human rights.” So claimed Patricia Dering, an official in the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs in the United States government.
Certainly, human rights receive a lot of publicity today. A recent conference of lawyers from 140 nations proclaimed: “Respect for human rights is a vital security, and central to the realization of man’s ultimate mission: the creation of a world of peace with justice and equality for all.” Hence, these lawyers appealed to world leaders to “respect the dignity of man . . . putting an end to any deprivations and violations of the fundamental human rights of the nation that has been entrusted to their care.”
While the theme of human rights is being discussed on such a high international level, individuals and groups within nations are also campaigning for what they feel are their human rights. So we read of old people claiming the “right to work,” others fighting for “equal rights for women,” anti-abortionists campaigning for the “right to life” of unborn fetuses. We even hear of terminally sick persons claiming the “human right to die,” and homosexuals demanding “gay rights.”
Perhaps in the flood of publicity about so-called rights, you have found yourself wondering: “Just what are these ‘human rights’? Why are they called ‘human’ rights? Who decides what is a ‘human right’ and what is not? Will human rights ever really be guaranteed?”
What Are Human Rights?
Human rights are defined in the Encyclopædia Britannica as “rights thought to belong to the individual under natural law as a consequence of his being human.” In other words, every one of us has a right to expect certain standards and freedoms for no other reason than that we were born human.
Why people should possess these rights has often been argued. Some feel it is just because of tradition. Others maintain it is a part of “nature,” part of the “humanness” of man. At least one philosopher held that human, or natural, rights are a consequence of God’s commands. For example, God commands man not to murder his neighbor. Hence, all men have a human right to expect not to be murdered.
One of the most comprehensive descriptions of what are viewed as human rights is found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. After mentioning that all men have the right to life, liberty and security of person, it goes on to specify such things as freedom from slavery, torture and degrading punishment; equality before the law; protection from interference with a person’s privacy; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of a man and his family. These are only some of the rights proclaimed in that document.
Human Rights and Government
As we read through the list, certain problems come to mind that show that human rights are not a simple subject. For example, most people would be unable to enjoy these rights unless they were guaranteed by a higher authority, such as a central government with adequate power.
In history, whenever there has been no strong, benevolent central government, the weak have usually been oppressed by the strong, and the situation has been as the Dutch philosopher Spinoza once said: “Everyone has as much right as he has might.” A strong, benevolent government can produce the peaceful, law-abiding environment where all can have a reasonable opportunity to enjoy some of the rights described in the Universal Declaration.
Reportedly, more than 70 countries today have documents outlining the human rights of their citizens. But does this mean that in most places today that kind of government exists? One government official remarked recently: “Bills of rights, declarations of human rights, constitutions and statutes are more often than not aspirational statements rather than descriptions of observable reality.” In other words, very often these documents merely state the hoped-for ideal of politicians, while what actually happens in their country is quite different.
Human Rights and the Community
Another point to remember is that a person cannot be so interested in his own rights that he overlooks the rights of others. For example, the Universal Declaration proclaims freedom of opinion and expression. But what happens when a man uses this right to slander another man? He then is encroaching on the rights of his neighbor.
Again, there used to be a religious practice in India known as suttee. In this, a widow would be burned alive on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Due to existing marriage customs, sometimes the widow might have been a 10-year-old girl! Now, banning this practice was an interference with religious freedom; but potential widows were doubtless very happy when it was no longer allowed. This demonstrates the balance that has to be maintained in observing the rights of different groups. Here again, an authority, or government, is needed to decide what that balance should be.
Finally, human rights can be affected by social conditions. Jose Leviste, a Filipino politician, made this comment: “The Universal Declaration accords about as much emphasis [to the right to have adequate food as it does to] the right that nobody shall tamper with your mail. The fact is that most of the people who have problems over mail do not have problems over food, while the millions . . . who go to bed hungry every night probably have nobody tampering with their mail if they get any. This merely emphasizes that not all human rights are immediately relevant to all people all the time.”
Hence, the question of human rights is complicated. Yet people do feel that they have certain rights, and, as standards of living increase, they are demanding more and more rights. Many feel as does Dr. Keith D. Suter, chairman of a United Nations Human Rights Committee in Australia, who said: “The need to protect human rights is an idea whose time has come. It will not go away.”
Is this the case? Will human rights ever really be guaranteed under this system of things? It would be instructive to look back briefly in history and examine the human-rights record of mankind over the centuries.