In a highly articulate speech on Friday, Pope Benedict XVI provided strong philosophical and moral arguments to make the point that human rights are inherent to human persons and not the fruit of an “agreement”. These rights, therefore, cannot be manipulated by ideological and pressure groups.
Human dignity is the foundation of rights, the Pope said, pointing out that the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN is celebrating this year, springs from this dignity.
The declaration, he recalled, “was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion and science.”
As the international discussion on human rights develops, the Pope noted that these rights “are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations”.
Indeed, Benedict XVI said, “the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights all serve as guarantees safeguarding human dignity. It is evident, though, that the rights recognized and expounded in the Declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”
Human rights, the Holy Father said, have their origin in “the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.”
These rights cannot be removed from the context of the natural law because that “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. This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights,” Pope Benedict XVI stressed.
A survey of “the life of the international community, both domestically and internationally, clearly demonstrates that respect for rights, and the guarantees that follow from them, are measures of the common good that serve to evaluate the relationship between justice and injustice, development and poverty, security and conflict,” he added.
“The promotion of human rights remains the most effective strategy for eliminating inequalities between countries and social groups, and for increasing security. Indeed, the victims of hardship and despair, whose human dignity is violated with impunity, become easy prey to the call to violence, and they can then become violators of peace,” the Pope said.
The Holy Father then told the UN that, “the common good that human rights help to accomplish cannot, however, be attained merely by applying correct procedures, nor even less by achieving a balance between competing rights.”
“The merit of the Universal Declaration is that it has enabled different cultures, juridical expressions and institutional models to converge around a fundamental nucleus of values, and hence of rights.”
However, the Pope noted that today some groups are attempting to reinterpret the Declaration in a way that “compromise[s] its inner unity so as to facilitate a move away from the protection of human dignity towards the satisfaction of simple interests, often particular interests.”
This is not how the Declaration should be interpreted, Benedict said.
Rather, it “was adopted as a ‘common standard of achievement’ (Preamble) and cannot be applied piecemeal, according to trends or selective choices that merely run the risk of contradicting the unity of the human person and thus the indivisibility of human rights,” he maintained.
“Experience shows,” the Pontiff said, “that legality often prevails over justice when the insistence upon rights makes them appear as the exclusive result of legislative enactments or normative decisions taken by the various agencies of those in power.”
Yet if these rights are based just on their authority as laws, “they risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their goal.”
“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.”
Pope Benedict pointed out that this idea was expressed “as early as the fifth century by Augustine of Hippo” when he said: 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.’”
“Human rights, then, must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators,” the Pope told the UN.
He also commented on how discernment is necessary for determining if whether or not something is a right. “As history proceeds, new situations arise, and the attempt is made to link them to new rights. Discernment, that is, the capacity to distinguish good from evil, becomes even more essential in the context of demands that concern the very lives and conduct of persons, communities and peoples,” he noted.
This discernment is made possible by “a vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help to achieve this, since recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism and war, and to promote justice and peace.”
The Pope's full address can be read here.