December 9 is Victims of Genocide Day
December 10 is Human Rights Day
Human rights are often treated as a list. We have a right to food, shelter, work, education, freedom from discrimination and so on. The bundle of human rights then forms a checklist against we can rate our society. Sometimes the connection between rights can be lost, and we find it particularly difficult to balance one right against another.
It can be more helpful to see rights, not as a list but as different ways of showing the respect we owe to people because they are human. Human rights spell out for us the conviction that all human beings, regardless of race, wealth, religion or power, are equally precious.
Religious people say that our unique value comes from the fact that each of us is deeply and personally loved by God. People who have other philosophies may agree that each of us has the right to be respected and the responsibility to respect others, but will find other grounds for the claim that we are entitled to respect simply because we are human. We don’t need to earn respect, nor does it depend on the colour of our skin, our money or of our flag. Criminals and kings, pediatricians and pedophiles, have an equal right to respect for their basic humanity.
Human rights spell out what respect means in different dimensions of our lives. Respect means giving to others the freedom to practice their religion, to take responsibility for their society, to care for their families, to receive an education, to work, to be fed and cared for if they lack the necessities of life, and so on.
In most societies people are not equally respected. Those who are severely disadvantaged do not have equal access to law, to income support, to education or to childcare. People who seek protection from persecution and Indigenous people may be systematically discriminated against.
Lack of respect for human rights is always dangerous in any society. In times of frustration, inequality and rapid change, people who are different can be targeted and become scapegoats. If they are not defended by law and by a culture of courtesy and respect in society, even people who otherwise behave decently can lash out in violence against them. We need to think only of the genocide in Nazi Germany, Burundi and Myanmar to see how hatred and violence can dominate previously peaceful societies.
Ordinary and respected people there took part in or applauded the massacre of people whose only crime was to be different. It is said that in the Nazi extermination camps officers could listen to Mozart, read the poetry of Goethe and go about their murderous business.
Genocide lies at the end of a long line that begins in disrespect for the dignity and rights of vulnerable human beings. That is why advocacy for human rights is so central to our work at Jesuit Social Services.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.