Leader: So, how safe are human rights?

by
23 April 2008

IT IS sometimes said that there is too much talk today about rights, not enough about responsibilities. That complaint has validity if directed against the popular idea of rights as asserted by the probably delinquent individualist: “I know my rights!” But that is a relatively trivial matter. Addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization in New York last Friday, Pope Benedict XVI said: “The promotion of human rights remains the most effective strategy for eliminating inequalities between countries and social groups, and for increasing security.”

So, 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, did the Pope go to New York to tell Americans the value of apple pie? Human rights were proclaimed in response to the state-organised atrocities of Nazi Germany. A framework of commonly acknowledged rights was designed to provide a firmer foundation for rebuilding civilisation in Europe and beyond. We would not expect this German Pope to underplay their importance; and in the course of his speech he also linked rights to “duties”.

In fact, however, his main contribution was to ask how secure rights are if they are not grounded in a common view of the human person as “the high point of God’s creative design for the world and for history”. Do rights have a future in more pluralistic societies? Do they have a future if they are presented in purely legal terms, and if their universality can be denied in the name of different cultural and social outlooks? He spoke in defence of the right to religious freedom, not only in the exercise of worship, but in “the public dimension of religion, and . . . the possibility of believers’ playing their part in building the social order”. Religious rights, he said, needed all the more protection if they were held to clash with a prevailing secular ideology.

The Pope, without mentioning sharia, is in fact not far from the territory into which the Archbishop of Canterbury ventured earlier this year. While the Pope may have in mind the debate on “gay marriage”, or the situation of Roman Catholics in China, for example, the dilemma applies to other ideological rifts within states. There are challenges here, too, for those who do not hold that rights can be grounded in “natural law” — if not, in what? — and to those who do; for, if “natural law” is immutable, can human definitions of it change — as they have in the past? If rights have to be not only protected, but weighed up, tensions will increase if there is a lack of reflection on the underlying propositions. The Pope asked some of the important questions, but not quite enough.

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