GANJIKI D WAYNE | Supported by the Bea Amaya Writing Fellowship
BESIDES CORRUPTION, HUMAN RIGHTS in Papua New Guinea is the talk of the town.
All PNG laws must include some declaration regarding possible infringement of constitutional rights—our articulation of human rights.
Newspaper headlines scream stories of abuse every day. Even the conversations of ordinary people are filled with concerns for human rights.
But have we ever stopped to really ask ourselves: what exactly is a human right? Why have human rights become such a prolific concern in the world today?
They have become the yardstick by which we measure the correctness and propriety of our actions or inactions: like a new measure of moral uprightness.
Let’s pause to think of a few things. Where does this concern for rights come from? What is its fundamental purpose? If we didn’t have such concerns would it matter? What is its fundamental basis?
Human rights assume there is a certain value of a human being. A value that makes people worthy of the privileges that we believe are due to us.
Just like any product of value is given some care and protection, human rights are the care and protection given to human beings because they are human. So the question is: Is a human being really worth it? How do we determine the worth of a person?
Is that worth dependent on the usefulness of a human being to the world? Or does that worth come about by us just being, by merely existing, by being human? Do all humans have an inherent worth or value?
Some worldviews cannot explain the original worth of human beings. Especially an evolutionary Darwinist view, which believes people evolved over millions of years from an organic soup. Therefore a pragmatic view must be taken.
A pragmatic view is one in which a position is taken because it’s practical to do so; not necessarily because it is true. It is forward looking; not necessarily historical.
We must assign human dignity because it seems like a good starting point if we are to make the world livable. If there is no concept of our human worth we will have a chaotic world. No one would respect each other. We wouldn’t have a valid reason to be good to each other.
This view requires us to impute value where there isn’t any. Over many years this idea has been promulgated so much so that people have come to believe in human dignity without even questioning whether there is a basis for such dignity.
By doing so God imputed a certain value (human dignity) to man. From that viewpoint people would also ascribe human rights; not just because it is a good idea for a harmonious world.
But man’s value inherently and historically exists. It is a reality. The notion of human rights allow for man’s God-ordained human dignity to be protected. I would call this view—for lack of a creative word and only in the context of this essay—the “creationist” view.
Other worldviews probably float around these two positions. Even some extremes. But let’s leave it there.
Notice both the pragmatic approach and the creationist view can lead to a firm belief in/for human rights. But both start off at completely opposite points. One believing in man being a divine creature and the other that it’s an animal evolved into sophistication over time.
I think it’s important to revisit the fundamental purpose of human rights in order to guide its advance. Otherwise we are left with a concept that has no roots, and will therefore have no boundaries. Even to an extent that the very purpose (protection of human dignity) is lost completely.
We see all around us people who, in pursuit of the full utilisation of their “rights”, do things to themselves (and many times to others) that undermine their own humanness. We see a man who locks his daughter in a dungeon as a sex-slave for years. We see people paint and pierce their bodies to replicate animals, in the name of freedom of expression.
Pornography is on the rise for the same reason. Sexual freedom has reduced the value of family to a trivial concern, and is attempting to promote homosexual partnership to a par with traditional monogamy marriages.
Abortion is on the rise because we don’t know how to tell which point a human being is a person worthy of the right to life. Millions of others starve because corrupt governments don’t care. And the list is endless. Inhuman. That is the term we use to describe atrocities against people, right?
The correct question is: What is a human? This question is fundamental. Because if the purpose of human rights is to protect human dignity, and human dignity is only imputed on humans, then it is immensely critical that know what we are.
Put simply, we can’t protect human dignity if we don’t know what a human is—because knowing what a human is helps us to appreciate that value of that being. If we don’t have an answer we lose any sensible rationale for any protection and the concept of human rights, left to pragmatism, becomes the tool by which human dignity is attacked and destroyed. (I think of the poor people that turn their bodies into carvings and mannequins).
The world's leading humanly-authored human rights documents (the American Declaration of Independence, UN Universal Declaration of Human rights, Magna Carta, French Declaration) each make an assumption: man has a certain value.
And not just that. Man is worth more than animals and plants, and worth more than the things that man himself creates. Those documents assume something else: that all man are equally valuable and equally worthy of certain rights that cannot generally be taken away.
As long as you are a human you have those rights. So much so that the violation of a human right is considered a violation of the humanness of the victim. And it’s not just the victim but the perpetrator’s humanness is called into question. Inhuman.
But why? What is the basis for such assumptions in those documents? Let me borrow a psalm to re-contextualize the question. What is man? That we are mindful of ourselves? That we consider ourselves above the beasts of the land, the birds in the air and the fish in the sea?
Are we not but flesh and blood—as equally expendable as the animal? Some think so (and some act so), except we have superior intelligence and a conscience—a sense for morality. What gives us claim to a list of privileges that arise only because we can understand and insist on them?
If a human is a highly evolved animal, there is no basis for human dignity—except a pragmatic one. If there is no basis for human dignity, there is no basis for human rights—for we are all animals. There is no basis for treating each other equal—for some animals are stronger and worth more than others. What makes us equally equal if we are evolved from organic soup?
We can argue about living peaceably but if some human beings are stronger than others and would live any way they please at the expense of the weaker, then so be it. There is absolutely no basis to protect human rights.
So while we can push for a pragmatic approach, we can’t justifiably oppose those who reject that approach and go on abusing human rights. One can choose not to subscribe to human rights and we, by being merely pragmatic, have no basis to try to change their mind on the matter.
On the other hand, if man is created by God and has been imputed with a divine value, then we have every reason to protect human dignity and therefore there is a valid basis to promote and protect human rights.
But there is a further implication. If God has made us then He must know how we are to live. Just as a manufacturer knows the complete method its product is to be used, so the Creator would know.
And He would have set some standards for us. And if we live outside of those standards we would be abusing ourselves—just as any product used outside of its design and purpose results in abuse (improper use). The Creator set in His prized creatures’ hearts, a notion of morality—His standards.
When we, in pursuit of human rights, act outside of those standards, we abuse ourselves. It is for this reason that people who hold the creationist view will not be silent when people do what is morally wrong in the name of human rights.
They will not be silent where homosexual practice and abortion and euthanasia and pornography and prostitution and racism are concerned. These practices violate the designs of the Creator.
They violate the value and dignity of the creature. And as people who understand that fundamental value they will not stand and watch a fellow human abuse himself or others, even if that person is convinced in his or her mind that they can do what they do. They must speak the truth.
Ungirded by morality, human rights becomes an open license to do anything. To an extent that the purpose of human rights itself—the protection of human dignity—is defeated completely.
Furthermore, one cannot remain a consistent advocate for human rights if one does not subscribe to a higher standard (morality) to guide it. For instance, one may insist on the right to life for all humans. And also the right to choose.
But proponents of abortion would have to exalt a despondent mother’s right to choose above an unborn baby’s right to life. The abortion problem gets even more complicated with arguments moving from the unborn baby’s status as a human being, to whether it is a person at all.
So now proponents of abortion argue that since the baby is not a person it is not yet privileged with the right to life. But wait. The right to life is not the right of a person; it’s a right of a human being. We’ve unwittingly given ourselves a new set of measurements: person’s rights. Problematic isn’t it.
When we have no standard of what’s right and wrong, anything is acceptable. Human rights itself will die without a moral foundation. Indeed it seems to be heading that way.