Human rights and obligations: What are their foundation and characteristics?
What are the International Conventions on human rights?
The following are the principal International Conventions:
The Universal Declaration on Human rights proclaimed by the United Nations on 10 December 1948:
- John Paul II defined this declaration as “a true milestone on the path of the moral progress of humanity” (John Paul II, Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 2 October 1979); the goal and also the starting point;
- the precursor and the inspiration for the above-mentioned Declaration was a Dominican Friar, Francisco de Vitoria, a Spanish philosopher and theologian (1483-1546). He contributed greatly to the preparation of the Charter of the Rights of the Indians of the New World. The scope of this charter was aimed at safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples during the colonial times in the Americas;
- the human rights proclaimed in the above-mentioned Declaration are an expression of the eminent and inviolable dignity of every human person. They are a manifestation of the unique and inimitable vocation of each that goes beyond any kind of difference and all forms of discrimination.
- the Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1959), in which we find the statement: “The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents”;
- the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), in which every kind of racial theory and practice are condemned. States are to fight against any forms of prejudice that would lead to racial discrimination;
- the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), in which, among other things, we find the following affirmation: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society… Special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons without any discrimination for reasons of parentage or other conditions...Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation” (art. 10).
What are the fundamental human rights?
- In the Universal Declaration on Human Rights the following are, in particular, indicated clearly:
- All human beings are born free and are equal in dignity and rights (art. 1); Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (art.3); No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms (art.4); No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (art. 5); Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law (art. 6); All are equal before the law (art.7); No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile (art.9); Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial (art.11); Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state (art.13); Everyone has the right to a nationality (art.15); Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family (art.16); Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others (art.17); Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (art.18); Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression (art.19); Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (art. 20); Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives (art. 21).
- John Paul II provided a catalogue of human rights in his Encyclical Centesimus annus in which he affirmed that every human person has the right:
- “to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother's womb from the moment of conception;
- the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child's personality;
- the right to develop one's intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth;
- the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth's material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and one's dependents;
- and the right freely to establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible exercise of one's sexuality;
- ”In a certain sense, the source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one's faith and in conformity with one's transcendent dignity as a person” (n. 47). This is the ultimate criterion that safeguards these rights, a guarantee or authentic pluralism and true democracy.
Religious freedom is to be understood, promoted and defended “in all its dimensions, including ritual, worship, education, dissemination of information and the freedom to profess and choose religion. It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves – their faith – in order to be active citizens (…) The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order. Human rights, of course, must include the right to religious freedom, understood as the expression of a dimension that is at once individual and communitarian – a vision that brings out the unity of the person while clearly distinguishing between the dimension of the citizen and that of the believer” (Benedict XVI, Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 18 April 2008).
What is the scope of religious freedom?
What is the foundation for human rights?
Human rights are not founded on:
- the mere will of human beings alone: this is a will that is changeable even within the same individual and finds differentiation from person to person. When there is agreement among the will of mankind on some issues of common ground, on certain shared ethical substrata, this would result in a content that is minimal and marked with uncertainty concerning its applications and moreover with a weakness in its effects;
- the reality and laws of the State: “Entrusting exclusively to individual States, with their laws and institutions, the final responsibility to meet the aspirations of persons, communities and entire peoples, can sometimes have consequences that exclude the possibility of a social order respectful of the dignity and rights of the person” (Benedict XVI, Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 18 April 2008);
- public power: “When presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their goal” (op. cit).
- The ultimate source of human rights is to be found in the transcendent dignity of the human person, since he and she are created in the image and likeness of God, and in the final analysis, of God who is their Creator. If we depart from this solid ethical basis, human rights remain fragile because they are deprived of their solid foundation.
In fact the person, since he or she is created in the image and likeness of God, is:
- the highest point in God’s creative plan for the world and for history, the highpoint of the visible creation;
- “are the only creatures on earth that God has willed for their own sake and has called to share, through knowledge and love, in his own divine life (…) A person is not something but someone, capable of self-knowledge and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with God and with other persons” (Compendium of the CCC, 66);
- the subject, the foundation and the object of such rights;
- at the heart of institutions, laws and social intervention.
- “They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks” (Benedict XVI, Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 18 April 2008).
“The natural law which is inscribed by the Creator on the heart of every person consists in a participation in the wisdom and the goodness of God. It expresses that original moral sense which enables one to discern by reason the good and the bad. It is universal and immutable, and determines the basis of the duties and fundamental rights of the person as well as those of the human community and civil law” (Compendium of the CCC, 416).
What is the natural law?
“The natural law “is nothing other than the light of intellect infused within us by God. Thanks to this, we know what must be done and what must be avoided. This light or this law has been given by God to creation”. It consists in the participation in his eternal law, which is identified with God himself. This law is called “natural” because the reason that promulgates it is proper to human nature. It is universal. It extends to all people insofar as it is established by reason. In its principal precepts, the divine and natural law is presented in the Decalogue and indicates the primary and essential norms regulating moral life. Its central focus is the act of aspiring and submitting to God, the source and judge of everything that is good, and also the act of seeing others as equal to oneself. The natural law expresses the dignity of the person and lays the foundations of the person's fundamental duties“ (CDS, 140).
These rights are:
What are the characteristics of human rights?
- “Universal, because they are present in every human person, without any exception in terms of time, place and individuals;
- Inviolable, insofar as they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity and because it would be vain to proclaim rights, if at the same time everything were not done to ensure the duty of respecting them by all people, everywhere, and for all people;
- Inalienable, insofar as “no one can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights, since this would do violence to their nature” (CDS,153);
- Indivisible: Together they form a single whole, directed unambiguously towards the promotion of every aspect of the good of both the person and society, "simul stabunt, simul cadent"; each one of them reflects the other, and is complementary and not interchangeable. They are oriented in a decisive way towards the promotion of every aspect of the good of the person and of society (…) The integral promotion of every category of human rights is the true guarantee of full respect for each individual right” (John Paul II, Message for the World Day of Peace 1999, 3).
Certainly they are. “Since rights and the resulting duties follow naturally from human interaction, it is easy to forget that they are the fruit of a commonly held sense of justice built primarily upon solidarity among the members of society, and hence valid at all times and for all peoples. This intuition was expressed as early as the fifth century by Augustine of Hippo, one of the masters of our intellectual heritage. He taught that the saying: Do not do to others what you would not want done to you “cannot in any way vary according to the different understandings that have arisen in the world” (De Doctrina Christiana, III, 14). Human rights, then, must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators” (Benedict XVI , Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 18 April 2008).
Are human rights connected to justice?
What is the relationship between rights and duties?
- There exists a profound correlation, a reciprocal complementarity, a respective responsibility between rights and duties.
Rights and duties are inseparably linked, primarily in the human person who is the bearer of these rights. This link also has a social dimension: “Once this is admitted, it follows that in human society one man's natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one's rights and ignore one's duties, or only half fulfil them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other” (Blessed John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 30).
- For this reason it is necessary:
- to place sufficient insistence on the responsibilities that derive from these same rights. In reality it is the duty that establishes how the rights are to be framed so that they do not become arbitrary. The limits of every right come from its obligations. “The Ganges of rights derives from the Ymalaja of duties”, Gandhi affirmed;
- to move from an era in which there was the tendency to give privileged place to rights towards a new historical phase in which account is taken also of responsibilities;
- to avoid camouflaging one’s own egotistical or subjective ideas as if they were rights, as well as artificially inventing a duty as the reason for a new right: this would create a Babel of rights which would, in the end, translate into an almost exclusive prevalence of the rights of the most powerful.
“The rights of nations are nothing but “‘human rights' fostered at the specific level of community life”. A nation has a “fundamental right to existence”, to “its own language and culture, through which a people expresses and promotes ... its fundamental spiritual ‘sovereignty”', to “shape its life according to its own traditions, excluding, of course, every abuse of basic human rights and in particular the oppression of minorities”, to “build its future by providing an appropriate education for the younger generation”. The international order requires a balance between particularity and universality, which all nations are called to bring about, for their primary duty is to live in a posture of peace, respect and solidarity with other nations” (CDS, 157).
Do the rights of Nations exist?
There exists, unfortunately, some gaps between the letter and the spirit when it comes to human rights to which sometimes merely a pure formal respect is given. There exists in fact a strident contradiction between the solemn proclamation of human rights on the one hand and their actualisation and practical application on the other. We can all attest to the fact that there exists a lamentable reality of violations of human rights of every type and in very many places.
Is there any discrepancy between the letter and the spirit in human rights?
“Every State has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made. If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments. The action of the international community and its institutions, provided that it respects the principles under-girding the international order, should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty. On the contrary, it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage (…) The promotion of human rights remains the most effective strategy for eliminating inequalities between countries and social groups, and for increasing security” (Benedict XVI , Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 18 April 2008).
Whose task is it to defend and promote these rights?
What is the duty of the Church in relation to human rights?
- The Church, which in its mission which is essentially a religious one:
- includes the defence and the promotion of fundamental human rights;
- “acknowledges and greatly esteems the dynamic movements of today by which these rights are everywhere fostered” (GS, 41);
- strives to respect justice and human rights within her own internal structures;
- announces the Christian foundation for human rights;
- denounces any violations of these rights;
- has a particular trust in the Lord and in the Holy Spirit in the work of promoting these rights;
- is open to collaborating with other religions, with men and women of every race and culture, with all organisations, whether they be governmental or non-governmental, whether on the national or international level that are involved in the promotion and defence of these rights.
- “To promote justice and peace, to penetrate with the light and the leaven of the Gospel all the fields of the social realm, has always been the constant task of the Church as a result of the mandate it received from the Lord” (Paul VI, Motu proprio Iustitiam et Pacem, 1976).
- Even if “a long path has already been trodden, there still remains a considerable portion to accomplish”, because “hundreds of millions of our brothers and sisters are still having their rights to life, freedom and security being threatened; their equality are dignity are not always respected, and new barriers are being raised for reasons linked to race, religion, to public opinion or other convictions” (Benedict XVI, Address on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of the Human Person, 10-12-2008).
NB: For more information on the topic discussed please see the following documents:
of the Basilica of Saint Ambrose and Saint Charles
Monsignor Raffaello Martinelli
- Blessed John XXIII, Encyclical letter Pacem in terris, 1963;
- Paul VI:
- Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 4 October 1965
- Message to International Conference on Human Rights, 15 April 1968
- Apostolic Letter Octogesima adveniens, 1971;
- Second Vatican Council:
- Apostolic Costitution Gaudium et spes
- Declaration Dignitatis humanae;
- John Paul II:
- Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations
- 2 October 1979
- 5 October 1995
- Sollicitudo rei socialis, 1988
- Centesimus annus, 1991
- Veritatis splendor, 1993
- Evangelium vitae, 1995;
- Catechism Of The Catholic Church, nn. 337- 361; 2104-2109; Compendium of the CCC, nn. 62-68; 444;
- Pontifical Council For Justice And Peace, Compendium of the social doctrine of the Church, (CDS), 2004;
- Benedict XVI, Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 18 April 2008.