Warp and weft of human rights5 Dec 2023
Human rights are not merely individual but sewn into the social fabric.
The last months of this year have been marked by disputes about human rights. Underlying the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament were differences about the right of Indigenous peoples to their land and how to negotiate them. The war in Gaza highlights the right to life of people affected by war in Israel and Gaza. In domestic politics we have seen disputes about the right to free speech and the rights of minority groups in society.
The conflicts about human rights emphasise the continuing importance of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights whose 75th anniversary we celebrate this year. Its theme is consolidating and sustaining human rights into the future. The emphasis on the future hints at current threats to human rights. The reference to cultures suggests that in no society can rights be taken for granted. They need to be woven into the fabric of society. They can be worn away by brutality or carelessness.
Human rights are sometimes treated as a list of items to which each individual is entitled. It more helpful to situate them within a larger view of human life, and so to ask what conditions must be met if we human beings are to flourish. The starting point for thinking about human rights is the conviction that each human being is precious and that everything necessary for their life and development must be encouraged and protected. This includes their security, their shelter, their education, their health, their access to food, their religious and political beliefs. Each individual person needs these things.
When thinking about human rights, however, we must also take account of another aspect of our lives. If we are to flourish we depend on one another. We need the support of others to be born, nurtured, educated, fed, clothed, to travel, have access to heating and computers, and to keep our lives and possessions secure. We have a right to these things because they are necessary if we are to live fully, but we depend on others to help us enjoy them. Human rights are not merely individual. They are social because we need the support of one another to respect and receive them.
In practice the rights of different people can come into conflict. In a family, for example, I have a right to food. You have a right to rest. We might negotiate the conflict by setting mealtimes that allow both for sleep and for eating. In more complex matters such as free speech and religious freedom we may need a more complex settlement that respects and puts some limits on each person’s rights. I may have a right to hold public religious services at 5am, but not to use loudspeaker systems that will deprive other people in my suburb of sleep.
Where rights are seen as individual entitlements it becomes difficult to negotiate conflicts. This has been the case in discussion of the tension between one person’s right to hold and to express religious views and the right of another to be free from hurtful speech. In times of war, too, respect for rights and the negotiation of them are particularly difficult. The most basic of rights, the right to life, is routinely disregarded. The urgency of winning the war, too, can override other rights as exemption from fighting on ethical grounds, the right to truthful communication, the right to personal privacy. Because war is the enemy of human flourishing it is also the enemy of human rights.