I laughed when a colleague sent me a meme with a photo of an empty notepad that included the caption: “Here’s a comprehensive list of everything you’re entitled to and what the world owes you.” This colleague knew that I was part of a team representing United Families International at the September session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, and wanted to brighten my day. But her witty meme raises an important question: What are you entitled to as a member of the human race? And, what, exactly, constitutes a “human right?”
While sitting through two-plus weeks of meetings of the Human Rights Council, the United Families International team heard and engaged in dialogue regarding subjects as divers as rights on water and sanitation, rights of older persons, rights of indigenous people and peasants, mental health and human rights, rights of unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents, all the way to reports on “impact of private military and security companies” on people’s rights.
It seems as though any issue and all advocacy efforts related to it – no matter how trivial or profoundly needful – were lumped together under the banner of “human rights”. Any group with an ax to grind – valid or invalid – will attempt to have their grievance aired, at some point in time, before the Human Rights Council. The prize? To have your concern or need labeled as a “human right”.
First, some history
The standard bearer and originator of international human rights was the United National Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNUDHR). Born out of the atrocities and enormous loss of life during World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
was created to provide a common understanding of what every’s rights are. It forms the basis for a world build on freedom, justice, and peace. (1)
The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the declaration as the most translated document in history. The Universal Declaration has become, according to its official website, “the most universal document in the world..” (2) It “has been adopted in or has influenced most national constitutions since 1948. It has also served as the foundation for a growing number of national laws, international laws, and treaties, as well as regional, national, and sub-national institutions protecting and promoting human rights..” (3)
Why the Human Rights Council?
The United Nations Human Rights Council or HRC (2006) – formerly the Human Rights Commission (formed in 1946) – is “an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.” (4) The Human Rights Council meets three times a year with a different agenda and set of human rights topics for each session.
What are considered to be “Human Rights”?
The Universal Declaration
specifies 30 different “human rights.” Below is a simplified list. You’ll note that the first 21 rights are things which many consider to be “inalienable” or God-given rights. Then the next six or seven “rights” moves into more of a gray area; some suggesting they are the equivalent of a list of “entitlements” not human rights.
1. We are all born free and equal.
2. The rights enumerated belong to everybody, whatever our differences.
3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
4. No one shall be held in slavery.
5. No one shall be subject to torture or inhuman treatment.
6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
7. We’re all equal before the law.
8. Your human rights are protected by law.
9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
10. Right to a public trial.
11. A person is innocent until proven guilty.
12. Right to privacy and protection from attacks against reputation.
13. Right to freedom of movement.
14. Right to seek asylum.
15. Right to a nationality.
16. Right to marriage and family. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
17. Right to own and retain your property.
18. Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
19. Right to freedom of opinion and expression.
20. Right to freedom of assembly and association.
21. Right to participate in the government of your country.
22. Right to social security.
23. Right to work, have a fair wage, and join a union.
24. Right to rest and leisure.
25. Right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.
26. Right to Education.
27. Right to participate in cultural life of community. Includes copyright protections.
28. Right to social and international order in which the rights and freedoms can be fully realized.
29. Responsibility to the community.
30. No one can take away your human rights.
We all need to consider and be clear on what is and what is not a human right. Although many things were labeled “human rights” might represent important goals and aspirations that a community or nation might work towards for the benefit and the flourishing of its citizens, there are few actual things that an individual is “owed” or is “entitled” to receive. Human rights are things that you came into the world with; right that reside in the fact that you are a human being. Some refer to these as “natural rights
The quest for human rights has a dark side
There are many agendas at play in the human rights arena, with each advocacy group seeking the legitimacy potentially provided by hitching their issue to the human rights understanding and platform. As United Families International works in both the domestic and international arena, we regularly hear claims such as these:
Abortion is a human right.
Women’s rights are human rights.
Gay rights are human rights.
Same-sex marriage is a human right.
Taking your own life is a human right – “right to die..” (euthanasia and assisted suicide)
Some of the most destructive forces that rally to negatively impact marriage, family, religious freedom, and even life are grounded in, and empowered by, “human rights” rhetoric.
Human rights activists (often called human rights “defenders”) and the policies they promote become virtually unassailable as they wrap themselves in the cloak of benevolence and compassion. These human rights defenders are given broad latitude, protections, and institutional funding as they move from country to country pushing their ideology while traditional marriage, the natural family, and respect for life from conception to natural death are attacked as being discriminatory, repressive and harmful.
These activists often claim to be for freedom of speech while supporting censorship, claim to be for children while demanding the legalization of abortion worldwide, claim to be for women while undermining motherhood, claim to be for marriage and family while working to put in policies that lead to more family breakdown, claim to support and respect religion – as long as you keep your religious opinions inside your house or church/synagogue, claim to be for human rights while often strangling the very natural rights which are at the core of our humanity.
The challenge of human rights activism is to ensure that the concept of “human rights” is not hijacked, diluted, or used to promote things that stand in opposition to the values and freedoms we hold dear. Learning about and promoting human rights come with lots of baggage. It is not a benign concept or way to approach public policy.
When it comes to deciding what “rights” we are owed, it’s good to remember: If we have to rely on a person or government to provide us with something we’ve deemed a “right,” we need to be prepared to have that same person or government take that “right” away. So, is it actually a right”? Perhaps my colleague’s witty meme is more accurate than the world’s human rights defenders would have us believe.