For Human Rights Day 2023 and the values it portrays.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” – Spock.
Today, on Human Rights Day, the newspapers here are full of news that the Australian government announces cuts in migration, in apparent response to polls that suggest Australians think we are importing too many foreigners. This is the same population that recently told our indigenous people that they did NOT deserve the human right to have a voice in the democratic process; the same population that wants the government to shackle and detain black people who have arrived by boat, even after the High Court declares that indefinite detention is illegal.
Meanwhile, wars in the Ukraine and Gaza and Sudan and Yemen continue unabated. The USA votes against ceasefire in Gaza, and the UK abstains. Sorry, there will be no peace on Earth for millions of human beings this Christmas.
It is now 75 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, and we seem to be much further away from achieving its goals than at any time since it was written. Affluent, entitled white folk bewail the “woke” lefties who promote social justice; conspiracy theorists demand their “rights” not to wear a mask or have innoculations, spreading a potentially fatal virus to the most vulnerable.
Therein lies a basic problem: many people think of human rights as an individual, ie. “my rights”. They need to think of humanity as a collective, a family, a genus.
Human rights do not begin and end with us, or with our immediate biological family, nor with our extended friendship grouping. Nor do they end within the limitations of our personal philosophies. I like to remind some people of a good comparison between being “pro-life” and being “pro human rights”:
Someone who says they are pro-life needs to understand that being “pro-life” does not begin and end with the question surrounding abortion. Being pro-life also means supporting women’s autonomy, and the right to make choices both at the start and the end of life. Being pro-life means opposing unrestricted gun ownership, the death penalty, and religious rights to discriminate against minorities. Pro-life means supporting universal health care and a universal basic income, endorsing school lunch programs and women’s shelters and social housing. It means demanding welfare programs, increased spending on science and medicine, and less spending on war. Being genuinely pro-life means upping our refugee intake, it means free public education, and employment programs to increase self-reliance and self-esteem, and to reduce crime and poverty. It means encouraging trans folk and gender variant people and everyone who encompasses diversity and difference to live freely and happily and joyfully. Pro-life means improving the quality of life for everyone around us – and around the whole world – especially for those with disadvantage, disempowerment or disability. It means higher taxes and adopting “trickle up” economics instead of “trickle down”. It means abolishing the developing world by engaging in a cultural war for true human equality. It means encouraging people to think critically and become educated and empowered and autonomous, resisting the religious or political or cultural systems that oppress them. Pro-life means working for social evolution and cultural revolution.
And so it is with human rights: anyone who claims to respect and uphold human rights must see the bigger picture. Until they are enjoyed by the person deemed to be least worthy or least likely or most overlooked and forgotten, then human rights mean nothing.
Today, on Human Rights Day, over one hundred million people are refugees or displaced due to wars, starvation, despots, genocide and injustice. Do we care?
Along with human rights come human responsibilities: and we have a duty to care – and to act. We need to extend the concept of human rights to our human family, and beyond that, to other sentient species, and to the environment, and to the biosphere – because these are all married to our rights and our survival. As creatures formed from stardust, we are all intimately connected. Human rights are life rights. Perhaps a quote from Carl Sagan would help us to gain some perspective:
“Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers.” – Sagan, The Demon Haunted World.
In the modern world, we see democratic nations electing fools and unqualified charlatans. We see populist movements of people who are ignorant of science trying to drag us backwards to the era of flat earth and oppression of minorities. It’s easy to dismiss the problem as being too big: we cannot save the world, so it’s too hard to try doing anything. But I think that we must recognise our human duty to spread hope: our world, for all its ugliness, is still a place where war and famine and injustice and cruelty are slowly being eliminated. Beauty and idealism and youthful enthusiasm must be nurtured.
Our ultimate human right is to spread hope and life; everything else is incidental and will come as a consequence. So the next time you think of giving life-saving food to a starving refugee, or another act of selfless human humanity, remember that not only are you right to do so, but it is your human right to do so – saving the world, saving the ethical core of your own humanity.
©2023 Geoff Allshorn