Margaret Burns points out that the foundation for human rights is the inherent dignity of the human person. Because of this human rights are inalienable: they exist prior to and independent of the person exercising responsibility. A child has rights. Indeed their vulnerability calls for greater determination to protect their rights.
It was once said that no one ever notices housework except when it’s not done. Something similar might be said about human rights: we tend not to think about them or their central importance in our lives until they are absent or have been violated.
Those of us who live in societies that, whatever their failings, allow individual freedom of thought, conscience and religion, have democratic systems of government, and provide protection against arbitrary arrest and detention, can so easily take all these features of life for granted.
We cannot escape the knowledge, however, that serious breaches of rights are the experience of great numbers of people in our times. The genocide in Rwanda, the loss of millions of lives in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the use of rape as an instrument of war in that conflict and in the Balkans, the ongoing agony of the people of Darfur: these are all recent and devastating examples of disregard for people’s fundamental rights.
It is hardly surprising that Pope John Paul II placed such emphasis on human rights in his statements on Church social teaching; he had, after all, spent most of his life, until elected Pope, living under two oppressive regimes. The first was fascist, the second communist. Both systematically breached basic rights, such as the right to free speech, the right to free assembly and even the right to life itself.
Human rights are set out in the legislation and constitutions of countries and in a whole series of human rights treaties from international bodies. The best known of these is, of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. The setting down and codification of human rights in international law over the past half-century is but the latest phase of a long evolution.
The sixteenth century Dominican friar, Francisco de Vitoria, and his colleagues at the Salamanca School in Spain are credited with establishing the theoretical foundations of the modern notion of human rights. Over the centuries that followed, there was a prolonged – and by no means an uninterrupted – process of elaboration of rights, first within individual countries, and then at an international level.
Whatever the particular formulation of rights at different times in history, the underlying philosophical and moral basis for rights is the belief in the dignity of every human person. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, speaks of the ‘inherent dignity’ and the ‘equal and inalienable rights’ of all members of the human family. In this it is reflecting the fact that the ultimate basis for human rights is the human nature we all share.
Alongside the civil and political rights already mentioned, international human rights documents outline ‘economic and social rights’, such as the right to work and to an adequate standard of living, the right to social security, education, housing and health care.
The argument is often made that such rights are less ‘fundamental’, and therefore less important, than civil and political rights. In reality, however, human rights are indivisible and inextricably linked. For example, those who are impoverished or denied a right to education may be in little position to exercise their political rights; those without work or access to decent housing may be denied their right to marry and found a family.
In the major social encyclicals of the Church, successive Popes have explicitly referred to the importance of economic and social rights. For example, in his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris ‘Peace on Earth’ – Pope John XXIII states that the human person has the right to live and the right to ‘the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest and, finally, the necessary social services.’
Any discussion about rights invariably raises the question of responsibilities. While it is undoubtedly the case that human beings have responsibilities as well as rights, the relationship between the two is not simplistic or linear: we cannot just say that we have rights only because we exercise responsibility.
People who breach society’s laws, who have failed in their responsibilities, may lose some rights, such as freedom of movement; but, no matter how serious their offence, they still retain their right not to be tortured or to be given an arbitrary or disproportionate punishment.
People who are in no position to exercise responsibility, such as the unborn child, young children or people who are suffering an overwhelming disability or illness, still retain their right to be treated with respect and to have their need for care met. Indeed, their very inability to exercise any control over, or responsibility for, their circumstances calls for even greater determination to give full protection to their rights.
Perhaps it might be said that, at different points in their lives and in different situations, people have varying degrees of responsibility. The overarching responsibility for all people is that they act in a way that allows other people to enjoy their rights and freedoms and that promotes the common good.
Need for debate
Human rights do not constitute some argument-free zone: there are serious and legitimate debates to be made about the definition of rights, their interpretation and the proper balance between different rights. It is extremely important that Christians engage in these debates and become involved in directly defending human rights.
We in Ireland have to be conscious of the challenge at home as well as abroad. We live in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, yet our two-tier system of health care, the 48,000 households on waiting lists for social housing, and the evidence of exploitation of migrant workers all highlight the need for us to do much more to ensure that the human dignity and rights of every member of our society are respected.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.