The adoption by nations of universal human rights arose from the vision of those who were appalled at the tyranny of arbitrary, belligerent state sovereignty with its mass persecution because of race, ethnicity, and political or religious beliefs. The final impetus came from the carnage of two world wars.
This gave inspiration to nations for a world-wide Human Rights revolution, by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), following earlier human rights declarations by the US and France.
The UDHR is a political construct, setting out the principles for governments to implement these revolutionary ideas. It is a straightforward, universal expression of the view that whatever our personal characteristics and beliefs, our behaviour towards others should reflect the good in our human nature: mutual respect, value and consideration.
Before the UDHR was conceived, liberties, rights and favours applied only to people with the requisite status. More enlightened countries established civil liberties for all citizens. But these liberties could be withdrawn or changed if the government so chose, so people were dependent on the good will of their particular government.
Under the UDHR, for the first time every individual is defined, not through being the subject of a monarch or sovereign state, nor because of his or her legal, physical, mental, social, economic or any other status. Humanness is the sole defining characteristic. And governments were expected to adopt these rights in law.
Have you looked at the number of human rights pronouncements, based on the UDHR, adopted throughout the world lately? The globe is awash with Declarations, treaties, charters, and Conventions bearing lists of our Rights, including the right to freedom of 'religion or belief'. They form agreements by governments to implement the ‘revolution’.
Governments love signing on to them and declaring their intention to uphold them forever more. Every sovereign state in the world – 192 of them – have signed up to the UDHR as a condition of membership of the United Nations, including Zimbabwe, Burma, Syria, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran. Notably absent is the Vatican (which calls itself a sovereign state) as it is a totalitarian Catholic theocracy. The UN also set up the mechanism for states to follow this in the Universal Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, whereby they undertake to adopt human rights in their domestic law, and breaches are adjudicated by the Human Rights Committee. This has been ratified by 169 states, and six have signed it without ratification.
This was indeed the stuff of revolution! It brought a whole new perspective to liberties. Human dignity, personal integrity and autonomy were declared to be essential to all human beings, regardless of who or where they are. These were not just ‘liberties’ (favours) but ‘rights’ (entitlements).
By recognising human rights, humanism is therefore committed to both the promotion and protection of these rights for all, as they represent the human values and needs we share with all humanity, regardless of diverse cultural and religious traditions. Despite the fact that humanists may reject belief in the supernatural basis of religious doctrines, they recognise the right of everyone to express or manifest a religion or belief in their personal lives, while maintaining human rights/humanist principles in community relations.
It is therefore important to keep in mind that all rights by their very nature rights involve duties on the part of someone else. These duties involve protecting everyone’s rights from obstruction by others so that individuals and governments must limit the practice of religious beliefs where they adversely affect such matters as public health and welfare, and unfairly restrict the right of others through unjustified discrimination.
The power of governments and interest groups under human rights is thus often limited. They now have an obligation to provide citizens with the rights they sign up to. They cede some of their power to the people, so while there is a widespread push for countries to recognise human rights that is not always convenient.
Here then is the rub: when you get down to the national level, governments are good at talking human rights, but they do not implement them. And why? Because they really don’t want to! Every nation in the world is guilty of breaching human rights to some extent, even those who commit to human rights in their constitutions – be it through prohibition, enforcement or the privileged treatment of race, ethnicity, political persuasion or particular beliefs in the interests of political expediency. Meantime, religious belief alone is a major cause of the mass human suffering, persecution and loss of life throughout the world.
Even when the pioneering world-shattering Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being drawn up, the evidence was there. States involved in drafting it were often more interested in preserving their historical customs, religions, power, prejudice and convenience, at the expense of ensuring truly genuine, equal enjoyment by all citizens of the rights that they were advocating.
We are part of a political revolution: one that is failing badly throughout the world. To bring about a humanist/human rights revolution much needs to be done. It involves more than seeking to convince others of our philosophical ideas and values. It calls for political action to challenge the widespread influence of those championing religious beliefs in our government’s policies and law-making. In Australia, pressing for abolishing prayers and ‘conscience’ votes in Parliament is critical to removing religious influence from government. Relevant action also involves campaigns for same-sex marriage, access to reproductive medicine and voluntary assisted dying legislation. Other breaches of humanist/human rights principles likewise need attention, the most prominent being the abhorrent treatment of refugees.
This is not to denigrate the importance of discussion communication, and celebration of humanism as a philosophy of life. These are also essential activities for the flourishing of this great legacy of the enlightenment.
I suggest, then, that as a life-stance, humanism is not solely a philosophy: it is also a political blueprint for decent, humanity-based living: a revolution that needs to be fought for.