Human Rights: Do We Need Them? 

Dr. John Duddington argues that our human rights derive from biblical principles and language. As they’ve always been part of the Christian message, these rights demand to be promoted as a matter of justice and to be protected from purely secular agendas.

refugee child peering through the hole in a tent

The promotion of universal human rights, like the concept of dignity, is very much a post-war achievement and as the memory of that era fades, the question of whether there are fundamental human rights and their protection in law is subject to a degree of scepticism. In the UK, this is currently in the context of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill and possible restrictions on the application of the European Convention on Human Rights. Nor is this an isolated event, and nor will it be in the future because the protection of fundamental human rights continually gets in the way of what governments of all political persuasions want to achieve.

There are some who would say that human rights are a purely secular concern. As Vanessa Klug, for instance, puts it: ‘Human rights are seen as a possible alternative common morality for the UK’. [1]The implication is clear: now that society no longer speaks a religious language common to most of us, human rights can supply this.

This is wrong, and I want to argue that it is an imperative of our Christian faith that human rights should be protected. Why? Nicholas Wolterstorff in Justice, Rights and Wrongs[2] argues that the protection of human rights has always been part of the Christian message. Indeed, the words of Christ on the Last Judgement and His lists of what acts Christians should perform to gain salvation can be seen, in one sense, as a list of basic rights. Thus, we are told in Matthew 25:35-36 that the King will say to the sheep on his right hand: ‘I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me’.[3]

These, as expanded, form the Corporal Works of Mercy as set out by the Catholic Church.

There is debate on whether we can trace a fully-fledged doctrine of human rights to these biblical teachings and to the works of the Church Fathers.[4]  What is clear is that the Scriptures recognise certain inalienable principles which apply to our treatment of others which can in themselves be recognised as rights attaching to them. These include the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, the Jubilee laws in Leviticus 25:8-17 and the rights associated with protecting the most vulnerable, such as widows, orphans and strangers. These are continued in the prophetic tradition and developed further in many of the teachings and parables of Jesus.

Roger Ruston has argued that the modern Christian concern with human rights can be traced to a great sermon preached by the Dominican friar Anton Montesimo in 1511 in what is now the Dominican Republic.[5] and the context was oppression by the Spaniards of the native Indians. His central words were:

Tell me, with what right, with what justice, do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? …. Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves? Don’t you understand this? Can’t you grasp this?’

Underlying this statement is the reference to the Golden Rule found in Leviticus 19:18 – ‘…you should love your neighbour as yourself’, which Jesus reiterates in Matthew 7:12, Mark 12:28-3 and Luke 6:27-35.

Following this, Pope Paul III, in his encyclical Sublimis Deus of 1537, stated of Indians that: ‘They are to have, to hold, to enjoy both liberty and dominion, freely, lawfully. They must not be enslaved. Should anything different be done, it is void, invalid, of no force’.

The Catholic Church did later look with suspicion on claims founded on rights due to its stress on the Enlightenment and the French Revolutionary document ‘The Rights of Man’. However, in more recent times the Church has recovered its voice with the stress on human rights in the wartime broadcasts of Pope Pius XII, the involvement of Catholics such as Jacques Maritain in the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and especially Pope John XIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1963 where he spoke powerfully of the entitlement to rights and enumerated a number of them:

Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health, disability stemming from his work, widowhood, old age, enforced unemployment, or whenever, through no fault of his own, he is deprived of the means of livelihood[6].

There is still the argument that an undue concern for rights can be seen as selfish. However, as Pacem in Terris [7]says:

The natural rights of which we have so far been speaking are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person[8]… Thus, for example, the right to live involves the duty to preserve one’s life, the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion, the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it.

Thus, as we claim a right, we also have a corresponding duty, not just to others but to ourselves. [9] There is much too in what Jean Bethke Elshtain says in her article ‘Thinking about Women, Christianity and Rights’:  ‘Rights are immunities from the depredations from the more powerful, which would violate human dignity, rather than entitlements’.[10]

Pope Benedict XV1, in his address to the U.N. General Assembly in 2008 on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, strongly advocated the protection of human rights but sounded a note of caution:

When presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension, which is their foundation and goal. The Universal Declaration, rather, has reinforced the conviction that respect for human rights is principally rooted in unchanging justice.

This is a useful corrective as the law of human rights develops. The issue, as Christopher McCrudden puts it, is how to move from  ‘an understanding of human rights based on the fundamental dignity of the human person to the identification of the precise practical implications of this insight’. [11] However, this should never deter us as Christians from seeking to reclaim the language of human rights from mere secularist discourse.

Dr John Duddington is Editor of Law and Justice: The Christian Law Review, a Fellow of the Centre for Law and Religion, University of Cardiff and a leading member of the Newman Association.

He is the author of ‘Christians and the State: a Catholic Perspective for the 21st Century’ (Gracewing, 2016) and The Church and Employment Law (Routledge, 2022). 

[1] In Values for a Godless Age (Penguin: London, 2000) p. 192.

[2] Princeton; Princeton University Press, 2010.

[3] All Bible references are from the Jerusalem Bible.

[4] See the discussion in Ch. 9 (The Religion of Human Rights) in N. Spencer ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016).

[5] R. Ruston, Human Rights and the Image of God  (SCM Press, 2004) at pps. 66-68.

[6] At para. 11.

[7] At paras. 28-29.

[8] My italics.

[9] Known as self-referential rights.

[10] In Witter and Van der Vyver, Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,1996), quoted in Newlands, Christ and Human Rights, at p.116.

[11] In ‘ Benedict’s Legacy: Human Rights, Human Dignity and the Possibility of Dialogue ‘ in The Legal Thought of Pope Benedict VX1 (CUP, 2015).