Browsing in the Amnesty International Annual Review for 2013 jogged my memory of a recently-heard declaration (I know not from whence it came) to whit: “There are no human rights, only political rights.” I concede that we use the phrase glibly, as if invoking a human right makes reference to something that is immutable, eternal and clearly understandable to anyone who is human.
Political rights speaks of the privileges granted to citizens by a state, as in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They are legally enforceable, as in the guaranteed right to participate in elections in Canada.
Human rights implies that beyond the political rights and freedoms written into the laws of states (or not), there exists an overarching charter relevant to every human being born on earth, whether Canadian, Sri Lankan, Colombian or Irish. If such a universal charter exists, then a state—for instance—that denies its citizens the right to participate in their governance is in violation of that charter.
In contrast to political rights, history has shown us that human rights are, by and large, unenforceable—except through indirect and usually ineffective means like shunning, shaming, pleading, bargaining, threatening, etc. It's one thing for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to declare that “Everyone has the right to education,” but the UN hasn't the means to prevent Boko Haram from bombing schools in Nigeria.
Is an unenforceable right a right after all?
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a collectively-arrived-at attempt to enunciate an overarching charter, a visualization of what the dignified, contented life consists of for any person born on this earth. I am one of the lucky few; born in Canada, I experience political rights pretty well consistent with the UN Declaration. Had I been born an aboriginal Canadian or a female in rural Nigeria, not so much.
Whether yours and my views on human rights tend more toward justice issues, democracy, humanitarian aid or possibly even the saving of souls in preparation for a next life, I'm sure we generally agree that the privileged and the powerful of this world owe the down-trodden a hand up. My choice has been, and continues to be, support for Amnesty International in their tireless work in support of persons suffering human rights abuses. Because Amnesty is non-sectarian and focused, it can do what sectarian organizations have found difficult, namely the supporting and/or rescuing of individuals whom neither political nor human rights charters and declarations have been able to protect.
A friend once told me that he didn't like the language of rights because it smacks of demands for me, me, me without acknowledgement of related responsibilities to others. Certainly, we hear plenty of “I demand my rights” talk these days, but the squealing of privileged people selfishly suing for rights shouldn't deter us from recognizing that the means to dignified, contented life is being routinely stolen from the majority of our fellow humans by tyrannies, corporate exploitation, discrimination, crime, injustice and/or sheer neglect.
Are there such things as basic, incontrovertible human rights? Among us privileged, it comes down to the question of whether or not we deserve the benefits we enjoy while others don't, both cases owing primarily to serendipitous accidents of birth.
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