by Albert Garong, SSP
Did you know you have thirty?
Human rights, that is. Yes, somewhere out there is a document that defines every right possessed by a human being. It’s ratified by no less than the United Nations, and pretty much covers everything you can’t imagine living without. That you can put dog parts on your Snapchat photo, own five pairs of shoes, scream your lungs out at K-Pop stars, keep secrets, even simply breathe—they’re all there.
And the importance of these rights cannot be emphasized enough. After all, rights are pretty much the bedrock of a just and civil society. So it is a must to understand what they are, especially as they’re getting a lot of buzz as of late.
Four Important Truths
Human rights are principles that define the standards for a human being to live with dignity. To understand them, there are four things you have to know:
First, our rights are universal. Unlike Pokémon, there’s no need to catch ’em all. You already have them. With rights, there is no requirement to fulfil but one: be a human being. So unless you can magically change your species to anything other than homo sapiens, you’re covered. Every human being is born with these rights.
And they’re yours forever, because they’re inalienable. No one can take your rights away from you—not without facing the full force of the law. There are exemptions, of course, just as with jailing convicted criminals or you hurting someone to defend yourself. But context and due process always determine when it is just to suspend a person’s rights. That part’s important, for they keep your rights safe from abuse. If rights can be so easily violated, then what’s the point of having them?
Rights also don’t discriminate. Wealth, skill, nationality, appearance—none of that matters. Neither does morality. Here’s a bitter pill to swallow: even the worst of us have rights. Hitler, Voldemort, that vicious bully in school? Yes, them too. For no evil can erase the fact that a person is a human being (just as doing good does not make you more deserving of rights). Their rights do not protect them from answering to the law, of course, but due process ensures this is done fairly and effectively. (When you’re the accused, you’ll realize how important due process is).
Finally, they’re obligatory. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is the basis of many countries’ own laws. We ordinary citizens, meanwhile, are bound to respect others’ rights. You cannot enjoy your rights while depriving it from others.
The Church and Human Dignity
Human rights are not partisan to any religion, but they sure have a strong advocate in the Catholic Church. After all, the backbone of Catholic social teaching has always been human dignity (way before the UN declaration). As human beings, we are created in God’s image and likeness. Thus, we all deserve to live in a way reflecting that truth.
In other words, rights are God-given gifts, and to uphold them is a God-given duty, an essential part of Church mission. That’s why the Church teaches on social justice, stands staunchly for those whose rights are not recognized (like the unborn), and ceaselessly prays for and works to help victims.
This means they are essential to both Church and humanity as a whole (after all, they protect the same thing: our dignity). As a Christian and as a human being, human rights matter—both one’s own and another’s.
When Reality Steps In
On paper all this seems clear cut. But real life, as always, makes things more complicated. Consider the following questions:
Is it okay to take away the rights of others for what is considered “the common good”? Is it justified when some are so quickly judged as bad and undeserving of their rights, even to the point of killing them, without due process?
]How do you feel about those whose rights are in most danger when this happens: the poor, faceless men and women who have no adoring fans to mourn them or money to pay for a trial or a second shot at life?
Should the price for positive social change include the violation of human rights? When we set this price yet let others (mostly the poor) pay for it, what kind of society are we building? In all these, what values are we promoting? What message are we sending other countries and our own future generations?
To these there are no quick and easy answers. But it is always worth it to examine ourselves and know what our attitudes are toward human rights.
The Power Behind Our Rights
Because our attitude toward human rights determines the power they have over our lives. They protect us only if we know and apply them correctly. They promote our well-being only when they truly are universal, inalienable, nondiscriminatory, and obligatory.
For if even one is not there, we render all human rights powerless. When our concern for rights is limited to our own circles, then others will be just as selfish. When we consider others’ rights alienable, then we also say others can take away our own. When we discriminate who gets to have rights and who doesn’t, people fight over who sets the criteria. When we don’t see rights as obligatory, then everyone’s free to abuse them at will. It’s a free-for-all madness.
See, whenever we start to think some people’s rights matter more than others, rights become privileges. And instead of being a common ground to unite us, they become prizes to be fought over. And then they’re nothing but empty concepts, meaningless words on paper.
Or we can make them count. It’s up to us. That’s why our relationship to rights shouldn’t just be because the law dictates us. We have to own them, be responsible for them, commit to them completely. After all, what gives us rights isn’t the law. It’s our God-given humanity. Did you need a piece of paper (a UN declaration at that) to know you deserve respect and must live with dignity? Didn’t think so. It’s a truth that is inherently and rightfully ours.
Go. Own our rights and make them count—for all.