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Human rights for all

The climax of the creation story is the creation of human kind and when God made us human beings he made us in his own image.

It follows that we are all very special in his eyes. The Psalmist reflects this when he poses the question, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” And he answers his question by affirming that God “made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour”.

So when we think about ‘human rights’ from a Christian perspective we do so against this background, conscious that we dare not neglect them because God values human being so highly. Nor dare we forget that God himself took human form in Jesus Christ in order to restore broken relationships with us and subsequently died on a Roman cross because he loved us so much. From this perspective human rights have to be a major concern for all Christians, especially in the light of all the evidence that those rights are blatantly disregarded in many nations.

The human rights concept is a relatively recent innovation, originating in the 20th century. Previously it was thought that there were ‘natural rights’ rooted either in natural law and know to all, or in a social contract between the governed and the governors. Both those ideas became increasingly discredited in the 19th century but in the era around the 1914-18 war, when nationalism was a powerful force in Europe, the ‘human rights’ of minorities became a pressing moral and political concern.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations was the eventual result. It reasserted the right to life, liberty, property, equality before the law, privacy, fair trial, the freedom of belief and conscience, free speech and assembly, the right to participate in government, to political asylum and not to be tortured. Additionally, the Universal Declaration included the right to education, to work, to equal pay, to an adequate standard of living and paid holidays.

However, herein lies a major problem with “rights”. Do they have any meaning or relevance if they are not enforceable? The additional list of socio-economic ‘rights’ were included at the insistence of the Communist members of the U.N. and reflected their view of liberty. They tended to ignore the first list of ‘rights’ and focus on the second whilst the non-Communist states emphasised the first list as noble but unenforceable ideals. So what is the status of these ‘human rights’ that are not obligatory in all societies?

More than that, how is ’human’ defined when the right to life is not extended to the pre-born embryo in the eyes of those who insist on the woman’s right to abortion? Animal rights campaigners challenge the exclusion of animals from the right to life, arguing that the distinction between humans and animals is blurred.

The recognition of a right implies a reciprocal duty to observe the same right for others. However, it is absurd to demand a right that others are unable to satisfy. So the rights to work and to be paid a fair wage for that work is meaningless where no-one is in a position to offer work or pay wages for doing it. Problems also arise when one person’s right not to be discriminated against conflicts with another person’s right to belief and conscience. The Ashers gay cake case was a classic example of this.

The horrendous treatment of Asia Bibi in Pakistan, the Rohingya Muslims in Burma and the Uyghurs in China highlight the need for every society that values human rights to make that commitment central to their foreign and overseas aid policies. Christians who pray for the conversion of all peoples have an additional duty to also pray for the human rights of all those denied them.

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