“…Conservatives have excellent credentials to speak about human rights. By our efforts, and with precious little help from self-styled liberals, we were largely responsible for securing liberty for a substantial share of the world’s population and defending it for most of the rest.” — Margaret Thatcher, State Craft P. 249
|Freedom House 2016 charts decade of decline in rights and freedoms|
End of the Human Rights Consensus?
The nonviolent end of the Cold War between 1989 and 1991 along with the end of totalitarian communism in Europe coincided with a decade long improvement in human rights and freedoms world wide. This trend over the past ten years has been in the opposite direction and is due to a number of factors, including the rise of China and Russia's return to authoritarianism after a brief democratic spring in the 1990s.
The War on Terror following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, the March 11, 2004 attacks in Spain and the July 7, 2005 attacks in Great Britain led to set backs in human rights in Western countries responding to international terrorism. However, the geopolitical map and the war on terror do not alone explain this worsening international environment for human rights.
There is a crisis of values reflected in the fragmentation of the international human rights consensus achieved in 1948. What is manifested now had its origins 26 years ago with Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. The Iranian representative to the United Nations explained that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a "relativistic secular understanding of the Judeo Christian tradition." However the UN Human Rights Declaration as initially conceived was not relativistic but over time human rights mechanisms have engaged in a proliferation of rights that give that appearance creating a breakdown in the 1948 consensus. Sadly, on the human rights front the practitioners of Islam have not been the only ones alienated but so too have many Catholics.
Human Rights in Decline: the decade long crisis
Although a contributing factor, the international decline in human rights cannot be laid solely at the feet of the United Nations. The cause goes to the abandonment of the foundations of human rights thought. First principles have been compromised and ignored in the service of expediency. For example, taking a human life can never be a right because human beings have a right to life. Taking a life is at best a necessary evil done in self-defense to save one's own life. The right to an abortion is a contradiction in conflict with universally recognized human rights.
Cardinal Martino, who served as the Holy See's permanent observer at the United Nations, says that this change of position is part of the "pro-death" agenda in modern culture. The cardinal said that Amnesty International's decision means Catholics and Catholic organizations should no longer financially support the group. "The promotion of abortion opens the door to the slippery slope of evil and death, where human rights are taken away from the most innocent and vulnerable children of God," he said. "I believe that, if in fact Amnesty International persists in this course of action, individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support."Furthermore Article Three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to life, and this is not accidental. This is because this human rights document drafted and signed on December 10, 1948 was not a compromise between liberalism and socialism but lobbied for and drafted by Christian Democrats with the active support of the Catholic Church and all the world's great faith traditions.
Pope John Paul II recalled the Roman Catholic Church's role in 1991 in the Papal Encyclical Centesimus Annus published on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum:
...[A]fter the Second World War, and in reaction to its horrors, there arose a more lively sense of human rights, which found recognition in a number of International Documents52 and, one might say, in the drawing up of a new "right of nations", to which the Holy See has constantly contributed. The focal point of this evolution has been the United Nations Organization.One of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher who was a profound Catholic and anti-modernist inspired by Christian humanism:
There is but one solution for the history of the world, I mean in a Christian regime, however it may be otherwise. It is that the creature be truly respected in its connection with God and because receiving everything from Him: humanism but theocentric humanism, rooted where man has his roots, integral humanism, humanism of the incarnation.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is heavily informed and influenced by Catholic social doctrine found in the 1891 Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII. The Catholic Church in its social teaching rejects both liberalism and communism embracing a defense of the dignity of human beings grounded in its own metaphysical vision of personhood.
The holistic approach to human rights that embraces both civil/political and social/economic rights was not found in a compromise between the liberal Anglosphere and the socialist Soviet sphere but was the initiative of Catholic thinkers, states and the Holy See that shaped this important document that was embraced by the major faiths around the world that shared its common truths achieving a unanimous human rights consensus with that document.
|Bishop Bartolomé De Las Casas|
Human rights, as an idea, have a conservative pedigree that stretches back to the Middle Ages and to the Catholic Church. The first time in human history that a universal concept of human rights in which they are applied to all living beings on the planet emerged out of a debate concerning the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the 16th century. The modern language of human rights emerges out of the public debate surrounding the treatment of Native Americans in the first years of the Spanish conquest and led King Charles V to organize a debate between the Catholic Bishop Bartolomé De Las Casas and the humanist attorney Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 in which the personhood of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and their ability to govern themselves was recognized as briefly outlined in the following quote by Bishop Bartolomé De Las Casas:
“All the races of the world are men, and of all men and of each individual there is but one definition, and this is that they are rational. All have understanding and will and free choice, as all are made in the image and likeness of God . . . Thus the entire human race is one.”
The debate on personhood rages today over the unborn and in order to justify abortion claims a difference between human life and moral personhood. Not treating human life and moral personhood as interchangeable opens up the debate not only to abortion but also infanticide because very young babies, according to Oxford University medical ethicists, and some philosophers do not achieve the status of moral personhood. established through modern philosophical inquiry. This is a slippery slope long rejected by the Catholic Church.
The proliferation of rights, this includes abortion rights are paradoxically undermining fundamental human rights to life, liberty and private property. Meanwhile progressives demonize conservatives, and traditional religious institutions for not joining their "human rights" bandwagon that fractures human identity, cheapens human dignity and undermines human rights while claiming to celebrate them.
Meanwhile history demonstrates that conservative forces led the drive to limit the absolute power of the sovereign in the 13th Century. Remember that on June 15, 1215 forty barons pressured King John into affixing his seal on The Great Charter (Magna Carta in Latin) at a field in Runnymede, England. It was the British aristocracy that initiated this profound change. This document placed the sovereign under the rule of law and established this principle among the English speaking peoples. 730 years later after the catastrophe of WW2 Conservatives and Christian Democrats sought to advance regional and international human rights structures with the aim of strengthening the protection of human rights in Latin America, Europe and Internationally.
Conservative roots of the European Union's Human Rights System
"The Conservative Human Rights Revolution radically reinterprets the origins of the European human rights system, arguing that its conservative inventors envisioned the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) not only as an instrument to contain communism and fascism in continental Europe, but to allow them to pursue a controversial political agenda at home and abroad. Just as the Supreme Court of the United States had sought to overturn Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, a European Court on Human Rights was meant to constrain the ability of democratically elected governments to implement left-wing policies that conservatives believed violated their basic liberties."
"Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good."
|Edmund Burke by James Watson © National Portrait Gallery, London|
As to the right of men to act anywhere according to their pleasure, without any moral tie, no such right exists. Men are never in a state of total independence of each other. It is not the condition of our nature: nor is it conceivable how any man can pursue a considerable course of action without its having some effect upon others; or, of course, without producing some degree of responsibility for his conduct.Enlightenment liberalism constructed abstract models that failed to take into account the full complexity of human nature and its contradictions. The French human rights charter declares men absolutely both free and equal. Edmund Burke and modern conservatives believe that "full equality" outside of the moral and spiritual sphere is unattainable and a dangerous fiction. The same ideas rooted in Christendom that motivated de Vitoria in 1550 in Spain drove Burke's vision 240 years later in Great Britain: the intrinsic dignity of man.
The trouble with absolute equality
This is what happened in the French Revolution and reached its apex with Maximilien Robespierre, in 1794 with his observation that he applied in governance: "The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny." It is a contradiction in the same way that combining absolute freedom and equality as revolutionary goals are in contradiction and doomed to failure. Robespierre was only applying the logic of enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote of "forcing men to be free."
Descendants of Robespierre confronting and infiltrating human rights institutions today
However the Stalinists of old and the new "Socialists of the 21st Century" who divided humanity along class lines have not had as great an impact as the newest generations of the Left that instead of appealing to a common humanity has further fractured and divided people by race, sex, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. The great religions are now to be restricted to the private sphere and any questions that they may raise about the new divisions can be dismissed as "belief-based bigotry."
Ireland's Pro-Life stance criticized by the UNHRC in contradiction with the UDHR
|British Section of Amnesty International and its objectives in 1962|
If human rights are to regain their relevance and end its worldwide decline then all parties (and this includes religions) must be invited to the table and not censored beforehand because it does not serve a particular political agenda. Furthermore the right to life, enshrined in both Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Article 1 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man should apply to all, at all stages of life. Competing rights claims need to be weighed and measured carefully, but recognizing the transcendent importance of the person.
Finally, human rights defenders instead of focusing on what divides us by race, sex, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and religion should seek to recognize our common humanity with a focus on the dignity of the person and the right to life.
Conservatives need to embrace their human rights legacy and reject attempts by intellectual adversaries who claim that there is only a "liberal conception of human rights." There is a conservative tradition of human rights that stretches back centuries and has a far better track record of success than their liberal enlightenment and revolutionary counterparts. This is because Conservatism respects the past, and informed by it looks to how its actions today will impact future generations.
This is why Conservatism is best positioned to rebuild the international human rights consensus in 2016 that the Left has wrought asunder with its abstract utopian projects.