10 December is the United Nations’ Human Rights Day
Human Rights Day is a day worth celebrating. It marks a long history of struggle – for the right of people without property to vote, for example, for the right of women to vote, for the right of Indigenous people to vote. The acceptance in society of each of these rights came only after people fought for them. The same is true of other things that we now accept as rights. Human Rights Day honours the struggle of so many people who fought and often suffered in support of the rights of people in their society.
Human Rights Day is also a time to reflect on what makes human rights human. Sometimes we can see rights as exclusively human as if only human beings have rights. In this view, we human beings differ from animals, forests and the environment which have no rights. That meaning, however, is too limiting. When we speak of human rights, we say something positive and central about ourselves as human beings. We say that human beings are not isolated, disconnected individuals who wear rights as armour against others but are persons who are defined by many interlocking relationships to other people, to communities and to the environment of which they are part.
Human rights are not things that separate us from other people and our environment, but name what respect means for each all involved in those relationships. To say we have a right is never the end of a conversation. It is the beginning of negotiation as we reflect together on how your rights are to be respected when they come up against my rights. Arguments about rights are always most deeply arguments about what it means to be human. They tell us what respect for other people’s humanity and the world’s delicacy means.
Crises always test human rights. This year the Black Lives Matter movement focused attention on the right of Indigenous people to respect for their life and their security in their relationships with police and the justice system. These rights needed to be set alongside the rights of police to protect themselves and the right of the community to be free from fear of threat to their lives or property. They need to be resolved in such a way that respects the human dignity of all those involved. The rights of one person or group do not wipe out the rights of other persons and groups.
This year, too, showed how difficult it can be to respect human rights if we see them as belonging to individuals without considering the wider context of relationships. The response to the coronavirus needed to take account of the rights of many different groups in society – the rights to appropriate health care, to be kept free from the virus, to be able to work, find housing, support themselves through employment, to move and associate with people freely, and to express their moral and political views. The nature of the threat from the virus, however, meant that in order to respond to it effectively, and so, to protect both human life and human prosperity, the exercise of many rights was limited by the need to isolate from others. Individual human rights need to find expression in ways that respect the needs of all in society.
At Jesuit Social Services, we are constantly called on to defend the rights of young people living on the margins of society. They are often treated without respect. The road to respect means encouraging them to respect others and others to respect them.
Madonna magazine, published by the Australian Jesuits, has accompanied Australians in their daily prayer and spiritual growth for more than 120 years. It is an ideal prayer companion and thoughtful gift in this time of isolation and disconnection from parish and community. Subscribe, or give a gift subscription, and help keep our prayer community going in 2021. Go to www.madonnamagazine.com.au for more.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.