Modern Canadians take for granted the idea of fundamental human rights. However, the development of “rights” for citizens has a long and tortuous history. As societies developed, they established rules of behaviour for their members. One example is the Ten Commandments, which banned from murder, stealing, and adultery in ancient Israel. The first two of these represent rights to life and to property.
The US Bill of Rights (1789) was edited to produce the first ten Amendments (1791) of the US Constitution. These include freedoms of speech and religion, the right to a speedy trial, and the primacy of juries.
The 20th century
The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states basic concepts of human dignity, liberty and equality, and the right to life for every person. It prohibits slavery and torture. Everyone should have guaranteed freedoms of movement, speech, thought, religion and conscience, and peaceful association. The Declaration also requires governments to provide an adequate standard of living for everyone. This includes food, housing, medical care, and necessary social services. The ideal of universal human rights supercedes any idea of an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group. This means that freedoms of speech, religion, thought, assembly, or movement cannot be restricted to certain groups.
Our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms builds on the UN Declaration. It demands equal treatment under the law. Thus it prohibits discrimination on grounds of race and ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion. More recently, Canadians now have a limited right to Medical Aid in Dying. However, on that other vexed issue, abortion, Canadian law is silent.
Threats to human rights
All this sounds fine. Except … Seventy years ago, the American thinker Hannah Arendt used the expression, “the right to have rights.” She raised the following problem. The UN Declaration refers to fundamental human rights. But how can “humanity” uphold or enforce them?
Arendt realized that a person’s rights depend on their membership in a nation-state, which has the responsibility to enforce them. That means that so-called “universal” rights are not really universal. For example, gays can go to prison or suffer death in Tanzania. Christians can’t build churches in Saudi Arabia.
What’s more, human rights exist only as long as there is the political will to uphold and enforce them. They are easily lost unless people protect them vigorously. Witness, for example, the recent threats to access to abortion in the United States. States can even abolish rights, as happened when Nazi Germany stripped Jewish people of the rights to their property and even their lives. States can also erode away what had been international norms. The Globe & Mail recently reported that human rights and the rule of law are now regularly flouted by governments such as those in Iran and China.
A Christian perspective
Is there a Christian perspective on human rights? I can offer only a personal opinion. Scripture, in both the Hebrew and New Testament varieties, repeatedly calls on us to care for the less fortunate in society. These are moral expectations rather than legislated rights. Many religions, as well as good people of no specific faith, accept them to a greater or lesser extent.
The prophet Micah declared, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before your God” [Micah 6: 8]. Jesus reaffirmed the Jewish shema, with its instruction to “love your neighbour as yourself.” He gave his disciples the New Commandment, “that you should love one another” [John 13: 34; 15: 12]. St. Paul was equally clear: that love (in the sense of respect) is the greatest gift of all [1 Corinthians 13]. Indeed, he wrote, love is the fulfilment of the Law of Moses [Romans 13: 10].
These Scriptural admonitions long predate the formalization of “human rights.” Yet they encapsulate everything necessary to guide our dealings with other people.
Micah’s three touchstones were justice, kindness, and humility. They give a moral dimension to a legislated list or code of human rights. Micah realized that justice cannot be selective. Partial justice, or justice for some, is not justice at all. Likewise kindness, which the New Testament calls love, can only have real meaning if it is universal. Loving one’s neighbour cannot be restricted to self-selected neighbours.
Humility implies that we can never be sure that we (or our beliefs and doctrines) are correct. We can only do our best to behave with love and compassion. Together with kindness and compassion, humility should guide us to humane decisions even in ethically difficult situations such as abortion and medical aid in dying.