What on earth are human rights? Part 2

Mbabane, Swaziland | 17 December 2014
Bill Snaddon

Last week on this page I offered a cynical account of human rights, otherwise known as ‘workshop rights’. Allow me to counter that cynicism with an attempt at sincerity.
Human rights were a powerful force in ridding the world of colonialism.
Human rights continue to unravel the sadistic networks of slavery that still exist today.
Human rights – an idea founded on equality and justice that finds expression through the courageous actions of everyday humans – continues to offer people a better life.
At the heart of human rights lies an unavoidable truth: that every human being, whether high born, low born, or anywhere in between, deserves to be treated with dignity and protected from exploitation and injustice.
That is, the rule of law and not the rule of man is the order of the day. For in man’s heart are feelings and alliances and prejudices. Whereas the law – a just and transparent law that has no eyes – treats all as equals and punishes rich and poor and all in between without fear or favour. The law cannot function if it does not protect individual (human) rights against the might of the state or other powerful interests.
The law is a non-starter, so to speak, if it does not protect humans from, say, unlawful imprisonment, even if so-called laws sanction such imprisonment.
Beyond these big-ticket items – like the ‘right to a lawyer’ or the ‘right to appeal a decision to an unbiased judge’ – are other rights just as crucial in the administration of a healthy society. Rights to food and shelter; education and healthcare; clean water and electricity; functioning toilets.
The right to express an unpopular or dissenting opinion is often the first step, for if that expression is not allowed then the soul is in prison. The list, as it should, goes on, until humans are no longer living in want of life’s essentials.
Call this idealistic or naïve, or ‘Western’, but if you do you are betraying history, not to mention that unavoidable truth – that we are all born with inalienable rights.
In other words, governments do not give us rights; rights are already ours yet need to be demanded and claimed.
And we were born with these rights long before those outspoken Americans coined this timeless phrase – inalienable rights. It’s just the founding fathers of America, drawing on the long history of battles for human rights, stated the obvious with more conviction than any nation has before or after: that we are all born equal. Of course they fall short from time to time, but don’t we all.
It is on this earth that some humans take away rights from other humans, in the name of ‘security’ or ‘culture’ or any other such empty jargon.
Or the timeless justification for ignoring human rights – there’s not enough money. Yet the most illiterate and sickly child knows this to be nonsense, for the cost of one car would put that child through school and cure her ailments.
It takes no advocacy officer or pompous politician to tell this to that child – she already knows. She is living proof of what happens when human rights are ignored.
If you think education and healthcare are expensive, try the cost of ignorance and sickness.
No country is immune from human rights violations, my own dear country Australia included.


I had intended this column to be a dispassionate account on the history of human rights, describing how these rights began long before Jesus and the U.N. and continue to progress in a way that improve lives. But emotion and prejudice has overcome any sense of order and reason, which is exactly why human rights – based on a functioning rule of law that protects individuals from both subtle and ruthless state abuse – are needed more than ever.
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 17 December 2014

#52_What on earth are human rights part 2_17 Dec 2014


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