What About Human Rights Today?
“There is a worldwide growing abuse of human rights, with violations of international standards so widespread that we are facing a human rights crisis.”
So said Donald M. Frazer, a member of the United States House of Representatives.
Some, on reading those words, may be surprised. They may feel that much progress has been made in publicizing and observing human rights in the modern world. Which view is correct?
Progress in Modern Times
This generation has witnessed a lot of international activity on behalf of the rights of different groups—certainly more so than previous generations. The United Nations has tried to establish an international standard by producing, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was followed by two covenants: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Universal Declaration was merely a statement of goals, and, hence, was signed by most of the then members of the United Nations. The two covenants, however, were designed to make these goals into international law, binding on the signers. The nations were much more hesitant about signing these.
Besides this, the United Nations has discussed such questions as genocide, refugees, political rights of women, the rights of children and world health.
In addition to the United Nations, other international organizations—such as Amnesty International—work to encourage the observance of human rights around the world. The European Commission on Human Rights has been established to handle allegations of violations. The International Labor Organization has worked to abolish such things as forced labor and to prevent unemployment.
Many national governments have passed laws protecting the rights and living standards of working people. Even the leaders of Christendom are speaking out in favor of human rights. And, most recently, the United States has made human rights a major part of her foreign policy, hoping to use her economic and political strength to encourage other lands to preserve the rights of their citizens.
Problems Still Remaining
Does all this activity mean that human rights will be guaranteed in our time, or in this existing world system of things? Unfortunately, we still hear of violations in many lands, even as Representative Frazer indicated. In 1976, the then United States Secretary of State was quoted as saying: “No country, no people, for that matter no political system, can claim a perfect record in the field of human rights.”
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Pope John Paul II was quoted as saying: “The world in which we live today offers too many examples of injustice and oppression.” A comment from Amnesty International was quoted in the Canberra Times: “Human Rights are violated in most countries under all kinds of political regimes and ideologies.” Why should this be?
One problem is that some violations are out of the control of the national governments. No government wants to see its citizens’ rights violated by criminals, yet, in most lands today, the “security of person” of many has been violated due to the rising tide of crime.
Another problem very difficult to solve is world hunger. Millions of people live at a starvation level, and, hence, enjoy very few rights. As one person expressed it: “How could the people enjoy their right to live fully and well if there is poverty and hunger?”
Prominent in the news in recent months have been the so-called “boat people” or refugees from Vietnam. Most will agree that, according to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration, these have a right to “seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, their appearance at the shores of some lands has caused much consternation. Seemingly they threaten the economy of these countries, and there are reports of their being driven off, sometimes with tragic results.
Conflicts of interests, or rights, are another problem. Here is how Philippine educator Ruben Santos Cuyugen explained it: “Protecting the cultural rights of a minority may run counter to the development needs of the larger community or of the region. Similarly, protecting the property rights of the advantaged group could be suppressive of the rights of the disadvantaged or deprived groups.”
What does he mean? Well, imagine a country where most of the wealth is in the hands of the privileged few, while the large majority exist in poverty. To try to raise the living standards of the majority, and, hence, protect their rights, the government may try to redistribute the country’s wealth. Yet in doing this they may find themselves violating the equally valid rights of the wealthy minority.
Finally, there is the question of interpretation. Certain Western countries often point to the rights that are enjoyed by their citizens, yet they have been accused of human-rights violations by some Eastern nations. As Fidel Castro maintained recently, according to the New York Times, the so-called freedom of the West was no more than the bourgeois right to exploit man and to preserve the class system.
On the other hand, some noncommunist countries draw attention to many alleged rights violations in Communist lands, such as the reports of slave-labor camps, and the widely publicized plight of dissidents. Yet, according to the French newspaper La Croix, “the Soviet Union . . . has chosen to make a big celebration of this anniversary (of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) by extolling . . . the exceptional rights enjoyed by its citizens.”
It may seem as if they are talking about different things, and perhaps they are. As Dr. Edward Norman, dean of Peterhouse in England’s Cambridge University, said recently: “Western democracies urge these sorts of moral objections (about human rights) in their critiques of authoritarian regimes . . . Socialist states respond with exactly the same rhetoric of human rights in their rejection of Western liberalism. There is a shared vocabulary of human rights, but the content varies according to ideology or class.”
Torture and Genocide
Perhaps worse than the above social problems and ideological differences are the many cases where the governments have a policy of oppressing their own peoples. Two years ago, Amnesty International was quoted in Time magazine as saying that in the previous decade, torture had been officially practiced in 60 lands. In 1975 alone, there were 40 countries accused of torturing their own citizens. In addition, several countries are accused of holding political prisoners.
After the last world war, the world was horrified to hear of the slaughter of six million Jews, as well as millions of others, in Europe. Many said, “It must never happen again!” Yet even now, we read reports of large-scale massacres in different parts of the world. The government of one small African country is accused of causing the deaths of one sixth of its population. In one tropical island, it is claimed that 100,000 died in a recent invasion. In an Asian country, some reports tell of more than a million being murdered for political reasons.
Perhaps, when you read these reports, you have asked: ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something? Why can’t someone go in, check whether these things are true, and stop them?’ The answer lies in what British jurist Lord Wilberforce called the “insoluble dilemma in matters of human rights—one principle being that human rights since the Universal Declaration are of international concern—the other being that how a State treats its own subjects is a matter of exclusively domestic concern.”
Professor W. J. Stankiewics, of the University of British Columbia, explained it at greater length: “Apparently, even if a country feels that human rights are being violated in another state, international law does not allow it to proceed against the violator either alone or jointly with other states. Indeed, an act designed to stop a violation of human rights would be an act of aggression according to international law. Human rights exist and are recognized, but their defense is hardly possible.”
What Is Needed to Guarantee Human Rights?
In view of this, it is hard to see how, under the present system of things, human rights could ever be fully guaranteed. Is there any way, then, that these rights can be assured? In examining the past and present history of man’s struggle for his rights, it seems that at least two things are needed.
First, there needs to be a truly moral community, one where each will not only enjoy his own rights, but unselfishly respect the rights of his neighbors. Second, there has to be an authority with sufficient wisdom to be able to decide justly how to balance the rights of different groups, and to solve the conflicting ideologies of human rights. This authority needs also to have sufficient power to solve social problems like crime and poverty, which lead to people’s being deprived of their rights. It would also need to be supranational, that is, have authority over nations, so that no earthly power would be able to massacre, torture, imprison unjustly or otherwise oppress its citizens.
Needless to say, no such community and no such authority exists under the world’s present system of things. Does this mean, then, that hoping for human rights to be guaranteed is just impractical idealism? No. There is a sure hope that human rights will be realized world wide—and that in the near future. Consider the facts presented in the next article.
[Blurb on page 9]
“No country, no people, for that matter no political system, can claim a perfect record in the field of human rights.”
[Blurb on page 10]
“How could the people enjoy their right to live fully and well if there is poverty and hunger?”
[Blurb on page 11]
First, there needs to be a truly moral community . . .
[Blurb on page 11]
Second, there has to be an authority with sufficient wisdom to be able to decide justly how to balance the rights of different groups.