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The first sign of corruption

  • 09 December 2021
The field of International Days is so crowded that they often find themselves with strange partners. In the case of International Anti-Corruption Day (9 December) and International Human Rights Day (10 December), however, the match is perfect. When a society denies human rights to some of its people it introduces a corruption that will rot its way through other people and institutions. Equally where corruption of any kind spreads it will soon eat away at human rights.   

Human rights are sometimes seen as a list of entitlements that governments must defend by law and regulation. That certainly is part of the story. But to think to some purpose about rights we need to set them in the broader framework of human relationships and so of what it means to be human. The starting point is the conviction that each human being is precious and unique. They have an innate dignity by virtue of being human. It is not given by law, earned by good behaviour or lost by illegal behaviour. Nor does it depend on the circumstances of our lives:  our race, for example, our religion, our citizenship or lack of it, our political views, our wealth, our contribution to the economy, our age, our intelligence, or our mental and physical health.

Human rights are about how human beings should relate to one another. They assume another central quality of human life — that if we are to flourish as human beings we depend on others. We are not self-made but depend on others to be born, educated, sociable, travel and communicate. Our flourishing depends on the flourishing of others and of our society.

A list of human rights spells out some of the things necessary for human flourishing — life, shelter, health care, education, freedom of movement and speech, or example. In an ideal society each person will give and receive respect from others as persons. Mutual respect means that I also concede to others any entitlements that I may have. It also means that I do not define rights by my individual desires and choices, but that in my desires and choices I look always to the common good as well as to my own interests. 

Underlying the recognition of human rights is the conviction that no human beings may ever be treated as a means to others’ ends. When rights come into conflict, they must be negotiated in such a