by Dr. Henry B. Tam
Why does the term ‘human rights’, like ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’, elicit passionate devotion from some people, but cold scepticism from others?
In truth, unless we can explain what underpins human rights in a clear and consistent manner, any attempt to invoke them in defending human wellbeing risks not just misinterpretation, but outright dismissal.
To understand the real importance of human rights, we need to recognise them as the products of moral agreement reached through intercultural dialogue under conditions of genuine reciprocity. It is when all concerned come to a shared understanding that their wellbeing would be weighed with equal consideration, and that any transgression would be readily condemned by everyone else, that they are prepared to commit to a joint endeavour of delimiting in principle what anyone can be expected to do and not to do in relation to others.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights was an historical milestone in the advancement of collective recognition of the protection to which all human beings should expect. Its declaration was significant precisely because it was made possible by the agreement of the members of the United Nations. A few individuals or countries declaring ‘universal rights’ would ring hollow if others were to regard them as biased or myopic.
But if the UN, representing countries acting on behalf of their citizens, has produced a widely respected agreement on what should or should not be done with human beings by virtue of their humanity, why then are human rights violated? And why do some people even try to brush aside the contemptibility of such violations?
Four reasons stand out, and each needs to be urgently addressed.
First, nothing is immune from manipulation and abuse. The due process of law, business transactions, religious worship, artistic autonomy, can and have been exploited by the unscrupulous to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Human rights are no different. Instead of being defensive as soon as the notion of ‘human rights’ is invoked, we should readily expose abuse of this moral concept so as to reinforce respect for what it is designed to serve.
Secondly, the struggle for human rights and global diversity is not secured by means of any given declaration. People all too often forget how hard it is to win better protection, or how precious that protection really is. It is the nature of succeeding generations to take the accomplishments of earlier times for granted, unless they are systematically educated and periodically inspired to appreciate how daunting life would be without true respect for human rights in all circumstances.
Thirdly, although most people acknowledge the wisdom and fairness of reciprocity, there is always a minority who seek to pay lip service to respecting human rights while they try to undermine it surreptitiously in order to make immoral gains for themselves. From polluting water supply to human trafficking, those responsible for callously ruining the lives of others should be branded as the worst public enemy. Whether it is through better detection, enforcement, or the closing of legal loopholes, the pursuit of these culprits ought to have high profile so that the public are aware of the importance of stopping them.
Last but not least, there are people who are so extreme in their views or so egoistical in their inclinations that they openly disavow any respect for various sections of society. To massage their self-importance, they will insist on their own superiority over women, homosexuals, other ethnic groups, people with different beliefs, or people on low income. They reject the universal respect of all for all, and instead cling to their predatory obsession of feeding their self-esteem through their domineering stance towards the ‘others’. Instead of granting any credence to their ‘customs’, ‘traditions’, or ‘faiths’, the fact that they flatly refuse to enter into any agreement with other people on a reciprocal basis means that their propensity to hurt or deprive others cannot be tolerated.
Human rights, as the mutual commitment to defend our basic wellbeing, are not an abstract ideal but a vital mechanism for ensuring abuse, exploitation, or predatory behaviour have no place in a civilised society. Only by taking seriously the implications of human rights can we begin to counter the vileness of moral wrongs.