In Pursuit of Human Rights

For the past month, the Shared Justice editorial team has considered the human experience by asking what makes an individual valuable and what gives him or her dignity. The United Nations is set to fill 14 slots on its 47-member Human Rights Council today. Among those expected to receive regional votes are Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Cuba. What has been called a group of the most flagrant human rights abusers certainly raises issues of legitimacy for the UN body, but the squabble over membership introduces much broader questions on human rights such as what makes a right human? Where does such a right originate?

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with penetrating views on the individual dignity and the nature of human rights. She observed the following:

"Basically we could not have peace, or an atmosphere in which peace could grow, unless we recognized the rights of individual human beings... their importance, their dignity... and agreed that was the basic thing that had to be accepted throughout the world."

The incessant jargon and politicization of defining human rights overlooks the profound truth in First Lady Roosevelt’s notion of human rights not existing outside of peace and vice versa. For peace to be present, human dignity must be not only elevated but leveled across all socio-economic and demographic stratas.

As Christians, we are reminded that “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18, ESV). As a society, if we are to come to a full realization of the rights of humans, should peace first be pursued? If so, how do we individually and collectively sow peace?  

Because the complexity of human rights merits a full-bodied discussion, the editorial team has again chosen to contribute individual voices to the discussion by considering what makes a right human, where such rights originate, and how these rights are interacted with in the public sphere.

Hilary Sherratt on Human Rights

I want to primarily take up the question of how human rights can/should inform public justice. The U.N. declaration of human rights begins its preamble with these words, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…” What’s immediately  interesting about this opening statement is the that human rights are constructed as “rights of all members of the human family”. Human rights have a purpose in how we maintain and establish our smaller communities, then, the particular groups of us “members of the human family” - because we share these more fundamental rights in common. So laws passed in particular communities - be they towns, states or countries - must show respect to these equal and inalienable rights, because our smaller communities are made up of members of this larger, more foundational, community.

Furthermore, it is important to realize that we think of these rights, at least in this UN declaration, as essential to the ends of good government - they are the foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world. The purpose of government, whether we trace it to a sphere sovereignty model or to a more utilitarian model of government as a police state, is to ensure freedom, justice and peace. We might have different opinions about how much government or what methods of government, but we are for the most part agreed at least on those broader ends. Human rights, therefore, are the foundation to pursuing those ends. Without a respect for and understanding of human rights, we cannot promote the flourishing of all members of the human family, and without such flourishing, there is no peace, justice or freedom.

French philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain was actively involved in drafting the Universal Declaration during his time as a representative at the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO). It was Maritain who provided a way forward in drafting a list of rights when philosophers disagreed strongly on their views of the human person or the justification of why a particular right should be thought universal. Maritain emphasized often that it mattered more to agree on the law itself - to put the right down on paper as indeed universal - than to agree as to the best philosophical rationale for the right. Thus, the UN declaration serves as a reminder that human rights have a profoundly practical element to them. While there was (and still is) philosophical disagreement - do we justify a right because of our notion of the imago dei or because of a Lockean notion of freedom - there is also practical agreement on the right’s existence, making governments and human communities accountable.

I think human rights are foundational for the possibility of justice. I also think they provide a way for us to practically hold governments and communities accountable while philosophical disagreements remain. The UN Declaration, and its fascinating history, is perhaps the best example.

Jeremy Chen on Human Rights

A human right is, first of all, a specific kind of right that one has by virtue of being a human being.

Secondly, using the term as it is conventionally used, a "human right" refers to a specific kind of right - a claim-right. This means that if someone deprives you as a human of that right which you are due, you can legitimately claim that you have been wronged. So, "human rights," entails an assumption of a metaphysical claim about what it means to be human and what therefore constitutes just treatment of human beings.

While some would ground human rights in certain capacities we have as human beings, vis-a-vis other animals, unless we are willing to concede certain humans as having less worth than they do (e.g. severely incapacitated, mentally ill, etc.), human rights must in some way be eccentric to human beings. If we are to accord a sacrality to them, such a status for human rights can only originate from God. So, one could say that a human right is based in the dignity bestowed on human beings by God in his decision to love them as human creatures. God loves human beings with a unique love that is appropriate to their being humans, so that they have a sacred right to being treated a certain way that is in accord with their being human beings.

Public justice has to do with our definition of laws constraining our treatment of human beings and protecting them from harm. It is impossible, therefore, to advocate a vision of public justice without resorting to, or at least assuming, a vision of human rights. In many ways, public justice is about placing boundaries around our treatment of each other that prevent egregious violations of human being's rights. Public justice is about adjudicating between all entities that participate in the public sphere - both individual human beings and institutions. As Jonathan Chaplin argues in his recent book about the political philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd, there is a certain fundamental way in which human beings are the unit of priority in thinking about justice in the context of civil society.

Human rights based reflections on the common good means that our public justice should rightly adjudicate between religious anthropological claims to loosely codify some description of human flourishing, even while allowing a plurality of definitions of human rights. Humanness now means we are able to be sons of God, filled with his Spirit, united to Christ

Closing Thoughts on Human Rights

Human rights may not be something that most of us consider on a regular basis in the U.S. but this article has suggested that Christians may want to. Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jeremy observed that human rights are based on the dignity bestowed on human beings by God in his decision to love them as human creatures. As children of God possessing the imago dei, it is possible that sowing peace is the most fundamental pursuit of any human right. Just as Hilary proposed, without such a pursuit of peace there is no justice or freedom. For the sake of peace and justice, today’s vote at the UN Human Rights Council should cause the international community to pause and consider what it means to pursue human rights. After all, in this case, it is entirely possible that the UN and member nations will reap what has been sown. 

 -The Editorial Team