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Universal human rights still matter

07 December 2018

Christians must stand up for the oppressed, wherever they are, declares Mark Oakley


Canon Oakley (centre) and the actor Sir Ian McKellen (to his left) take part in a protest outside the Russian Embassy in London last year, against the abduction, torture, and killing of LGBTI people in Chechnya

Canon Oakley (centre) and the actor Sir Ian McKellen (to his left) take part in a protest outside the Russian Embassy in London last year, against the...

IT IS a bad time for clairvoyants. No one quite knows from day to day what the next political developments will be, in the UK or around the world.

One thing looks pretty sure, though, and the Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project this year has already given warning: a majority of countries worldwide will continue their decline in upholding fundamental human rights. These include absence of discrimination, right to life and security, due process, freedom of expression and religion, right to privacy, freedom of association, and labour rights.

This is alarming news in the year in which we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).


ON 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the fledgling United Nations adopted the UDHR in the wake of the Second World War, and what the preamble refers to as the “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”.

Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the guiding spirits of its drafting, hoped that the UDHR might be the “international Magna Carta” for humankind. Other drafters included European and Lebanese Christians, a Chinese Confucian, Marxist Soviets, Latin American socialists, an Indian Hindu, a French Jew, and European social democrats. Sub-Saharan Africa was unrepresented, owing to European imperial rule.

The declaration was pursuing a moral vision that established human rights, or dignities, as being both universaleveryone is eligible, regardless of national legislation, because they are founded on our common humanity — and international, in that national sovereignty must not be a screen behind which governments can hide, claiming that abuses against their own citizens or residents are their own business. The UDHR’s contention is that, when life and liberty are at stake, humanity always trumps nationality.

Although a post-Enlightenment emphasis has focused on the individual freedoms of human rights, the UDHR balances these with the weight it gives to “social progress and better standards of life”. It was providing an ethical template and vision for a good society and a safer world.

The historian Samuel Moyn has argued that human rights were “born” as a moral utopia when political utopias died. Unable in itself to eliminate state human cruelty, the UDHR’s aim, nevertheless, was to fortify the world with a set of common standards and values, based on the observation that “we are all members of the human family.”

It was hoped that everyone — not just nation states — would clearly see when these standards were breached, and be encouraged to speak out to defend them. For this reason, it can be argued that the declaration was written precisely for a moment such as now.

In the West, we have tended to see human-rights concerns as part of foreign policy. But, as we have seen recently in the reports of Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (Comment, 23 November), Western nations such as the United States and the UK are being forced to see them as domestic issues. Professor Alston’s report last month, for instance, backs up the UN inquiry report of two years ago that austerity policies introduced into welfare and social care by the UK government amount to “systematic violations” of the rights of people with disabilities.


CHRISTIANS have sometimes been uncomfortable with the language of rights, although, earlier this year, Pope Francis urged people to read the UDHR: “For the Holy See, to speak of human rights means, above all, to restate the centrality of the human person, willed and created by God in his image and likeness” (News, 12 January). This builds on John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1963.

Some Christians find the idea of human “dignities” more appealing, because “rights” seem to overlook the gift of life from God. But rights may also be understood as equally God-given human freedoms with which to enjoy and build society, within our given freedom to become fully alive.

Christian spirituality is the patient and unapologetic vocation to speak up for others, especially when they are oppressed. This is a time when leaders campaign in graffiti and govern in tweets, seducing us by making honestly complex things dishonestly simple.

It is a time when national pride and international indifference to the rights of certain groups of human beings are re-emerging in fresh and frightening forms, often with a plausible language and the defence of being the “will of the people”.

As one in four Europeans votes for a populist party, it is a time to be alert. In the words of Professor Francesca Klug: “There’s never been a time since 1948 when states that once claimed to champion the UDHR have so fiercely articulated a world-view, and mind-set, which directly or indirectly undermines its basic value system.”

The task is urgent for both Christians and all people of good will. We need to find a refreshed poetic and prophetic language for the moral vision of human dignity, universal rights, and the rule of law. For many in our world, this means extraordinary bravery from people who know the risks, but who also know that Archbishop Tutu is right: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Canon Mark Oakley is Dean and Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge.

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