When the term "human rights" becomes such a rhetorical catch-all, endlessly expanded to suit the passing tastes of the age, such an elastic approach can end up discrediting, undermining and outright opposing the very rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration and the concept of human rights itself.
2018 marks the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed three years after the 1945 foundation of the United Nations to give definition to the "fundamental human rights" and "fundamental freedoms" mentioned in the UN Charter. The motivation behind it was to counteract the barbarous acts that occurred at the time of World War II, most notoriously the Holocaust, which had justly outraged the conscience of mankind.
When St. John Paul II came to the United Nations in 1979, he called the Universal Declaration the UN's "fundamental document" and "cornerstone," said it was a "milestone on the path of the moral progress of humanity," declared that it had "struck a real blow against the many deep roots of war," and insisted that it "must remain the basic value ... with which ... consciences ... must be confronted and from which they must draw continual inspiration."
It's easy for Americans to take many of the rights listed in the Universal Declaration for granted, because the foundational documents of our country focus on "unalienable rights" endowed by the Creator. But for many peoples across the world, living under various forms of subjugation, the list was a watershed. It specified the rights to "life, liberty and security of person;" not to be a slave, tortured or inhumanly punished; to equality before the law, effective access to fair and competent legal systems where one is presumed innocent until proven guilty; not to be arrested arbitrarily, detained, exiled, or subjected to retroactive laws or penalties; not to have one's privacy, family or home unjustly interfered with; to move within one's country, leave it, and return; to asylum from persecution; to a nationality and the ability to change it; to marry and found a family; to own property and not arbitrarily be deprived of it; to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, to change one's religion and be able to live it; to freedom of opinion and expression; to peaceful assembly and association; to take part in self-government; to equal access to public service, social security, economic, social and cultural rights; to work in just conditions, with equal pay for equal work, with fair remuneration to ensure for oneself and his family a worthy existence; to form and belong to trade unions; to reasonable limitation of working hours; to a healthy standard of living with food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services; to free education in elementary stages and for parents to choose the education for children; to legal protection of what one creates; and to a social and international order in which these rights can be realized.
Various of these rights were controversial. Communist governments opposed the right to leave one's country. Various Muslim countries opposed the right to change one's religion, to equality between men and women in marriage, and other rights opposed to Sharia law. South Africa opposed the basic equality between races in order to sustain its then system of apartheid. But of the 58 countries then pertaining to the United Nations, 48 voted in favor, with the others abstaining from the vote or failing to show up.
It's a real sign of the impact of the Universal Declaration and of the ethical progress of humanity that, across the world, almost everyone speaks of fundamental human rights that pertain to us by our nature and dignity and not by revocable state concession. This progress remains even though in many places there are still repressive governments, terrorist organizations and other entities that ignore and trample upon these rights. Even in such situations, there's a vocabulary to describe the illegitimacy and evil of such acts, which can pave the way for them to be overcome, as we saw with the falls of Soviet communism, apartheid, and other dictatorial or inhumane situations.
In the last seventy years, however, particularly in the last fifty, there has been, however, a corruption of the principal of human rights to try to elevate the desires of individuals or groups into matters that others must acknowledge and ensure. When the term "human rights" becomes such a rhetorical catch-all, endlessly expanded to suit the passing tastes of the age, such an elastic approach can end up discrediting, undermining and outright opposing the very rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration and the concept of human rights itself.
This is what Pope Francis called attention to in the Vatican last month, in his remarkable annual address to the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See. He dedicated the vast majority of his remarks to the upcoming 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration -- to be celebrated December 10 -- stressing how it recognized the "inherent dignity and ... equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" as the foundation for freedom, justice, peace and integral human development. To speak of human rights, he stated, "means above all to restate the centrality of the human person," because such rights are "premised on the nature objectively shared by the human race." But he warned that when a false or "reductive vision of the human person" serves as the foundation of rights claims, it opens the way to "injustice, social inequality and corruption."
He elaborated upon the anthropological reductionism at work in what he calls the "new rights" that have been invented since the social upheavals of the 1960s. These novel "rights," he said, significantly stray from the vision of the human person on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the other conventions that form international human rights law, are grounded.
"Debatable notions of human rights," the Pope stated, "have been advanced that are at odds with the culture of many countries. The latter feel that they are not respected in their social and cultural traditions, and instead neglected with regard to the real needs they have to face. Somewhat paradoxically, there is a risk that, in the very name of human rights, we will see the rise of modern forms of ideological colonization by the stronger and the wealthier, to the detriment of the poorer and the most vulnerable."
What Pope Francis is describing is that powerful and wealthy countries, both through direct official development assistance as well as through certain international agencies, are conditioning the reception of development help on the acceptance of radical social agendas with regard to human sexuality, abortion, family structure and even basic anthropology, under the guise of new "rights." The Pope has gone so far as to call this ideological colonization a "world war... not with weapons but with ideas."
But this ideological bullying doesn't have to cross international borders to be wrong and dangerous. It can also take place within countries, within their governmental, educational and employment institutions, and within culture at large. Genuine human rights, like the right of every human being to life, are trampled in order to give those who are older, stronger and politically powerful the novel "right to choose" to end another's life in the room and even to have others pay for it. The right to religious freedom is disregarded so that some may have the new "right to marry whomever they love" and force business owners against their conscience to make wedding cakes celebrating it. The right of parents to choose the education of their children is bulldozed in order to give children, through their educators, the "right" to receive "comprehensive sexual education" -- including graphic descriptions of practices opposed to the moral values of the families involved -- even in pre-school.
"It should be noted," Pope Francis said, "that over the years, particularly in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960's, the interpretation of some rights has progressively changed, with the inclusion of a number of 'new rights' that not infrequently conflict with one another. ... It is painful to see how many fundamental rights continue to be violated today. First among all of these is the right of every human person to life, liberty and personal security. It is not only war or violence that infringes these rights. In our day, there are more subtle means. I am thinking primarily of innocent children discarded even before they are born, unwanted at times simply because they are ill or malformed, or as a result of the selfishness of adults. I am thinking of the elderly, who are often cast aside, especially when infirm and viewed as a burden. I am thinking of women who repeatedly suffer from violence and oppression, even within their own families. I am thinking too of the victims of human trafficking, which violates the prohibition of every form of slavery."
He went on to focus, as well, on how the "right to freedom of thought, conscience and of religion, including the freedom to change religion," is being ignored, not just by certain fundamentalist or communist countries, but also by aggressively secular governments. "Sad to say," he declared, "it is well-known that the right to religious freedom is often disregarded, and not infrequently religion becomes either an occasion for the ideological justification of new forms of extremism or a pretext for the social marginalization of believers, if not their downright persecution."
Such novel rights alienate the true, unalienable ones.
It was a powerful address in which he challenged the growing tendency to trample person's and people's human rights in the supposed name of human rights, which sets the tone for the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration and the context for the continuation of the rights it enumerates.
It's of interest not just to ambassadors, diplomats and leaders of nations, but to all holders of fundamental human rights.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
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