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Nuancing the concept of human rights - The Examiner

Archbishop Angelo Frenandes ()
7 December 1996

Title : Nuancing the concept of human rights
Author : Archbishop Angelo Frenandes
Publication : The Examiner
Date : December 7, 1996

The publication is the oldest Roman Catholic Journal in

Human rights form a new world ethos today. That man has a
right to life, to the integrity of his body and to ade-
quate living conditions, that the freedom of conscience,
of religion and the' expression of opinion are to be
respected, that all are equal before the law and all have
a right to participate in the public affairs that are of
concern to everyone, and that any kind of discrimination
is to be rejected - all this and much more meets through-
out the world with broad consensus today.

The obligation to respect such inalienable human rights
has been recognised by almost all States since the United
Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. To be sure,
the reality often corresponds neither with the letter,
still less with the spirit, of this solemn pledge. The
U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in glar-
ing conflict with monstrous violations of human rights in
our century.

Hence, the question that is inevitably posed is how do we
translate this U.N. Declaration of Human Rights into
everyday living ? Human rights is not the universal point
of reference for all problems related to human dignity.
It is one window on the world; there are others just as
valid. Two thirds of the population of the world, of
Hindu and Buddhist tradition particularly, do not organ-
ise their lives around human rights, but on something

In the Hindu scriptures, for instance, there is never a
word about "rights" but always only on "duty", "service".
Everywhere in Asia people speak of "dharma", often trans-
lated as "duties"; but it is, in fact, the natural order
of things or fitting the human situation, e.g. stage in
life, sex, community, ancestral family. People organise
their social order, not on human rights, but on the basis
of responsibility and eternal gratitude to parents,
extended family, tribe, clan, ancestors, and Mother

Each of the two worlds (the Western and the Asiatic),
says Pannikar, has meaning and coherence in terms of and
within a received and accepted myth. The situation of the
world today is a new one. We are faced with the revolu-
tion of cultural/religious pluralism. This calls for a
change in our attitudes. This means reflecting on, organ-
ising and experiencing dignity, order and peace in the
light of the knowledge and the savoir faire of all cul-
tures and religions.

There is need for a dialogue between "Rights" and "Dhar-
ma"; between Rights and Duties; between rational Man and
Man-in-relationship; between the myth of transforming the
world and the myth of maintaining the world, and harmo-
nising with it - a process of mutual learning and mutual

Human rights in their present form do not represent a

universal symbol which is sufficiently strong to create
understanding and agreement among all peoples. But no
more does "dharma". If we must have a declaration, then
this should be a Declaration of Universal Rights and
Duties, covering the whole reality.

To redress the balance, perhaps it is pertinent to shift
the emphasis from rights to duty and service, and ask
ourselves the question: Will it make for a greater sense
of responsibility and duty towards the weak and vulner-
able, especially of the least developed countries? Empha-
sising human dignity and responsibility may yield better
results in our campaigns for the observance of human
rights. The value and dignity of every child, made for
immortality and evoking reverence and care at the hands
of others, is because of his/her intrinsic and intimate
link with the Divine. Making human dignity and respon-
sibility the fundamental points of reference for the
onslaught on world poverty may yield better results in
the struggle to secure the "human rights" of the deprived
and the elimination of destitution.

There is enough in the world for the needs of all, but
not enough for the greed of any. All concerned people
have to keep lobbying for the "responsibility" and the
political will - to be forthcoming for delivering the
goods. This is a mighty challenge, but an essential
ingredient of the task of peace-making. It necessitates a
change from the present mechanistic mind-set governing
the conduct of human affairs to a more holistically human
world view that would seek to rally all the forces avail-
able towards making life more human for as many as possi-
ble across the globe and beyond all frontiers and barri-
ers. The human, God-given dignity of each and every man,
woman and child must be made the basis for Gandhiji's
revolution of non-violence and truth, a collective blaze
of love for building a human society based on freedom,
solidarity, justice and inter-dependence in our Only One

This calls for a shift of emphasis from an individualis-
tic spirituality to a more collective or communitarian
one for addressing the "collective wrongdoing of our

In prayer this can be achieved; some would say in contem-
plative prayer alone. We consciously ask the Lord to take
over and to allow us to be led by the Spirit and to
receive from Him the "power" and will to do.

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