We are in the midst of an international human rights crisis. Will we rise to the occasion once again?
Human Rights are in crisis around the world and have been for some time. At such a moment it is important to return to and reflect on first principles. The idea that human rights predate the rules set out by governments, some important thinkers argue, is based on natural law. In 1951 the Christian Democrat philosopher Jacques Maritain published Man and the State and on pages 84-85 of his book explored the historic and rational foundation of human rights in the natural law that remains relevant today:
Shall we try to establish our faith in human rights on the basis of a true philosophy? This true philosophy of the rights of the human person is based upon the true idea of natural law, as looked upon in an ontological perspective and as conveying through the essential structures and requirements of created nature the wisdom of the Author of Being.
The genuine idea of natural law is a heritage of Greek and Christian thought. It goes back not only to Grotius, who indeed began deforming it, but, before him to Suarez and Francisco de Vitoria; further back to St. Thomas Aquinas (he alone grasped the matter in a wholly consistent doctrine, which unfortunately was expressed in an insufficiently clarified vocabulary, so that its deepest features were soon overlooked and disregarded); and still further back to St. Augustine and the Church Fathers and St. Paul (we remember St. Paul's saying: "When the Gentiles who have not the Law, do by nature the things contained in the Law, these, having not the Law, are a law unto themselves ...") and even further back to Cicero, to the Stoics, to the great moralists of antiquity and its great poets, particularly Sophocles. Antigone, who was aware that in transgressing the human law and being crushed by it she was obeying a better commandment, the unwritten and unchangeable laws, is the eternal heroine of natural law: for, as she puts it, they were not, those unwritten laws, born out of today's or yesterday's sweet will, "but they live always and forever, and no man knows from where they have arisen."
Jacques Maritain played an important role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and in the above mentioned book described how individuals of radically different and traditions were able to come to a consensus on a fairly detailed document.
"How is an agreement conceivable among men assembled for the purpose of jointly accomplishing a task dealing with the future of the mind, who come from the four corners of the earth and who belong not only to different cultures and civilizations, but to different spiritual families and antagonistic schools of thought? Since the aim of UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] is a practical aim, agreement among its members can be spontaneously achieved, not on common speculative notions, but on common practical notions, not on the affirmation of the same conception of the world, man, and knowledge, but on the affirmation of the same set of convictions concerning action. This is doubtless very little, it is the last refuge of intellectual agreement among men. It is, however, enough to undertake a great work; and it would mean a great deal to become aware of this body of common practical convictions."Timing is also key and in the aftermath of World War II where the crimes of the Nazi Holocaust were exposed to the world, and the failure of the nation state not only to protect the lives of its citizens but to systematically slaughter them created a shock to the conscience of the international community that made the drafting of such a document possible. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified in Paris, France on December 10, 1948. It had happened before.
|Bartolomé de Las Casas|
|Artistic rendering of Columbus's expedition to the Americas|
The greed of those who undertake conquests and the timidity and humility of the Indians is such that we are not certain whether any instruction will be obeyed. It would be fitting for Your Majesty to order a meeting of learned men, theologians, and jurists … to … consider the manner in which these conquests should be carried on … justly and with security of conscience.
|"The Devastation of the Indies" Bartolomé de Las Casas|
|School of Salamanca|
Questions one ponders on the eve of the possible arrival of Hurricane Irma.