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Human rights are more than an inconvenient truth


For any government, human rights can often be a nuisance. When people protest against breaches of human rights, they bring the actions of the government to scrutiny, try to prevent it from doing what it wants to do, make it rethink its plans and give it a bad reputation abroad.

Eyes of a young resident of Santa Rita, Bolivia. UN Photo/Evan SchneiderSo the Australian government, unfortunately, is not alone in refusing to endorse a charter of rights, attacking international bodies that criticise its rights record, and enacting laws to insulate its projects from legal challenge.

Activists who protest against abuses of human rights are often criticised as unrealistic and legalistic. Critics accuse them of inventing rights at a drop of a hat to suit their case.

They also point out that many states that offer the strongest legislative protection of human rights often respect them least in practice.

Although they can be inconvenient and provoking, human rights matter. It is important for nations to recognise them and for citizens to defend them. The survivors of the Second World War who had seen the gross violations of human rights under both Nazi and Communist regimes clearly saw this. These states regarded human rights as a privilege that they could give and take away as they chose. History spells out in the alphabet of gas chambers and gulags what that attitude meant for their subjects.

The recognition that governments will always be tempted to regard human rights as expendable has inspired committed people to defend them. We celebrate their work this week, on international Human Rights Day (10 December), which insists that all human beings have rights simply by being human, not by being right-thinking, amenable or of the right religion, race and political persuasion. The state does not create rights. Nor may it take them away.

This message is particularly important in times of anxiety, like our own, when governments are under pressure from their people to provide perfect security whatever the cost. The promise of total security is illusory, but the cost is real. It usually involves showing systematic disrespect for groups of society, stripping away rights to privacy and to equal protection under the law. Public relationships that are originally designed to ensure respect for people are skewed to encourage disrespect.  

The enumeration of human rights is simply a way of spelling out the conviction, always precariously held in society, that each human being is precious and demands respect. The different rights are not arbitrarily invented but name aspects of life essential for human flourishing.

So we say that human beings have a right to food, drink, shelter, safety, medical care, education and work, to associate freely and to practice their religion. These rights must be respected if we are to live full human lives. Even if they cannot be guaranteed in all times and places, the right to them continues to exist, as does the responsibility of the international community to address the war, tyranny, famine and other situations that prevent people from enjoying their rights.

When governments deprive people of education or freedom or forbid them to work, we ought to be concerned. The deprivation and the contempt that it demonstrates diminish them as human beings, and soon affects their health and spirits. That is why Australian immigration detention facilities have been described as factories for producing mental illness. They embody disrespect and destroy people's lives.

Similarly we must hold governments responsible when they adopt policies that attribute to children adult responsibility for criminal behaviour, routinely incarcerate them, and hinder vulnerable children who suffer from mental illness from accessing appropriate help. Respect for human rights must be implemented through effective delivery services as well as through rhetoric.

Of course if people are to flourish as human beings, rights are not enough. They need relationships in which they can find and offer care. The automated announcements on the railway station that tell us when the next train is coming and warn us to stay behind the line respect our right to security. But if we are homeless or a stranger in town they are cold comfort. In order to flourish we need human company and sympathy. In practice rights need to be grounded in love.

To struggle in defence of human rights takes courage and constancy. To care for the people whose rights we defend requires love.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Image: Eyes of a young resident of Santa Rita, Bolivia. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

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Existing comments

The 9th Amendment to the US Constitution reserves unenumerated rights to the states or the people. No American lawyer knows exactly what these rights are. All of them assume that a human being has an infinite set of rights, rights which may remain undefined because they don't need to be identified until a controversy occurs. Rights could range from the trivial (or perhaps not so trivial) right of a woman to appear at work with unshaven legs to the usual hefty items such as freedom of speech. Pre-defining rights invites those rights to override other rights which have not yet been defined. The right to personal privacy in the US protects abortion because the Founders didn't anticipate that the Bill of Rights should have included a human life amendment. Apparently, some pro-choicers dislike the mantra that abortions should be safe, legal and rare. They think 'rare' divides abortions into 'good' and 'bad', a division they say is stigmatising. So why don't we start by proposing a charter that only has one provision, one that says human life begins at conception. If that passes a referendum, we can propose more rights. Otherwise, we'll know that rights are just a NIMBY thing.

Roy Chen Yee | 08 December 2015  

A commitment to the absolute equality of all people, using creative means to implement human rights and the development of just and loving relationships are essential components, I think, in any charter of human rights. We cannot mention rights without that other word - responsibility. Sometimes, it's an uneasy balance. Society is diminished if we don't put in the hard work to give rights and responsibilities their due. It is no credit to our government that we do not have a Bill of Rights. This is where the judiciary can speak, where citizens can rally and where the church can lead.

Pam | 09 December 2015  

Fr Andrew. One thing that does concern me is the opposite side of the coin you describe in today's article. - the place of individual responsibility. Can someone lose their human rights through their actions or are these rights unconditional? Is there anything that demands that certain rights be withheld as a result of individual abuse of others' rights in an ordered society? How many rights does each individual human being possess? Are they all inherent or do vested interests invent some rights for their own advantage or the disadvantage of others eg the right to choose abortion, the right to die at a time that suits the individual, the right to employment regardless of qualifications, willingness to work, for purposes of gender equality or any other perceived right of the worker? What about the rights that are fundamentally moral wrongs?

john frawley | 09 December 2015  

Respect for fundamental human rights is a must and non negotiable, and balancing a sense of rights + responsibilities is critical for the wellbeing of the earth and all inhabitants. A strong culture of entitlement can exist these days creating imbalance in important relationships and making them small. With each right comes a responsibility to feel just a little more gratitude than entitlement, and we grow from there.....

noelle fitzpatrick | 09 December 2015  

What we really need is a Bill of Responsibility. It needs to be active rather than the passive Rights. The first line could be: “I will always show courtesy to all creation”. Second line: “I will always behave with kindness”. Nothing else is needed, but for those who love to make rules to control others, each line should begin with “I will” rather than I shall.

Plain Jane | 09 December 2015  

"So we say that human beings have a right to food, drink, shelter, safety, medical care, education and work, to associate freely and to practice their religion.".. These are an impressive list of human NEEDS. Perhaps it is truer to say individuals have a right to be enabled to SEEK these goals rather than to have an entitlement to be given them, without any proportional effort on their part.

Robert Liddy | 09 December 2015  

T S Eliot was rather dubious that our civilisation would outlive the beliefs which created it. I think he was spot on. Human rights - at least the important ones - are not the abstract creation of philosophers. They stem from something deeper. I can see our society almost poised to throw that overboard. Certain events that have happened recently in this country - like the recent Women's World Mixed Martial Arts bantamweight title fight between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm in Melbourne - where the former was knocked out and seriously injured after a head kick by the latter, a minister's daughter, are to me a sign we have lost our bearings. Bishop Robert Barron sees the real possibility of our returning to the sort of society which existed in Ancient Rome. In the 1960s and 1970s I would have considered that alarmist. These days I am somewhat less optimistic. I think we are on the way there. Reversing this trend will need some real effort. It will not be achieved by mere discussion. Jesus did not rely on the chattering classes of his day to bring about his moral and spiritual revolution. I don't think we can either.

Edward Fido | 09 December 2015  

Unless rights are grounded in human nature and philosophical realism they are merely nominal and susceptible to arbitrary definition. One test of a genuine right as distinct from a want masquerading as a right is whether the right claimed carries a reciprocal obligation, e.g., the right to life carries a reciprocal obligation to respect that right in relation to the life of another human being..

John | 10 December 2015  

A couple of things struck me reading this excellent piece. Roy, if you say "human life begins at conception" you would have to agree that nature aborts. And funny how we say "enjoy" a right as if it is some piece of enjoyment. Do we need a better verb?

Michael D. Breen | 10 December 2015  

Michael, nature doesn't only abort. Modern societies choose to think that it is morally correct to prevent or minimise the number of casualties from 'natural' events that also threaten people who have left the womb.

Roy Chen Yee | 12 December 2015  

I'd be willing to bet a hefty some of money that most of the people commenting here about responsibilities, obligations and the "opportunity" to pursue life's necessities - rather than rights themselves - are people who have never experienced hardship or lived in a precarious situation where any of these rights were denied to them and they had to go without adequate food or medical treatment.

AURELIUS | 14 December 2015  

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