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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing