Richard Harries: The age of universally enforced human rights is still a noble dream

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The drive to get human rights acknowledged in theory and observed in practice is one of the great movements of our time. When future historians look back they will single out the 1948 United Nations declaration on human rights as one of the outstanding achievements of our age. There are still terrible violations of human rights in many countries. Too often only lip service is paid to the idea. Yet there is now an internationally agreed benchmark for how individuals should be treated that had never been there before.

Although the movement to get internationally agreed statements about human rights was very much a product of World War II, the theoretical discussion about the nature of rights and their basis is usually thought of as going back to the 17th century. What about before that time? Was the idea of rights invented then, or did it have roots going back into classical times?

It is true that the language of rights was not so much in evidence before the 17th century. What rights try to safeguard were expressed in other ways, most obviously in the concepts of law and justice. The law that forbids stealing carries with it the idea that people have a right to their own property. Similarly, the law that forbids us to harm other people carries with it the idea that people have a right not to be gratuitously hurt. Or to put it in the language of morality rather than law, if I have a duty to respect the person and property of someone else, they have a right to live their life without attacks on them.

In personal terms, I have a responsibility to respect them and they have a right to be so respected. So the idea of rights is built in to the very notion of law. But in the modern world we are talking not just about legal rights but about human rights. These are about what is due to us by virtue of our very humanity. These human rights will usually be expressed in law and they need to be so expressed in order to be fully effective. The point about human rights language is that it implies a moral basis for those laws, and it acts as a catalyst both to have such human rights enshrined in law and to go on working for the extension or improvement of such laws in order to conform more nearly to the moral imperative

Taken from a lecture to be given by the Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Gresham Professor of Divinity, at the Museum of London today

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