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There has been a concentrated number of references to human rights recently, with the benighted suburb of Homs at one end and some people claiming they were being infringed by a cross in the window of a crematorium at the other.

I’m very sceptical of the phraseology with which certain people assert their rights, and am also concerned that the repeated claims which people make to these entitlements could lead to their becoming a cliché. The second worst thing about a cliché is that it is annoying, the first is that it is meaningless.

Do not misunderstand me, I regard the heroic period from which human rights originated with reverence, and I carry the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with me at all times:–

These rights belong to you.

They are your rights.

Familiarize yourself with them. Help promote and defend them for yourself as well as your fellow human beings. 

Reading the preamble and the body, with its exacting prose and confident affirmation of the value of humanity, is inspirational. Nevertheless the document, one of the prime texts in human history, is flawed from the first article.

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

I could name exceptions, but now isn’t the time. Essentially, the first statement is an affirmation, without argument in the preamble; and it is not true — one might say that it would be desirable for it to be true, but then it should be expressed in that manner. Essentially, human beings are rarely born free, without even discussing the varying definitions of ‘free’; and some have low entitlements when it comes to dignity and rights. Essentially, the statement is wishful thinking.

This is what I dislike; it is this type of assertion — which the document uses to affirm these entitlements — that insalubrious regimes and organisations use to remove them. The finest statements of politics and literature assume the least, but this one is founded on assumption. Centrally, this method of assertion reminds me of someone speaking as if they are on orders from a deistic authority: this is not the situation nor is it stated to be; I wouldn’t carry the rights with me if they were founded on this claim! To condense the situation, assuming the least: We have no rights; we are entitled only to that for which we strive.

This is not the clean type of declaration for which the UN would have been looking at the time, but this does not excuse the fact that one of the best works of history is founded on very little.

To address my cliché point. If people continuously yammer on about human rights, authorities and listeners will get bored, without regard for the verity of the claim. This is related to my first point.

Some people disparage the attacks on Baba Amr in Syria, saying that the military action is a violation of their human rights. Why? What of human rights? This statement would be better expressed as: The action against Baba Amr should be ended, as the authorities are killing people; because people don’t like to be killed, and because people don’t like to have their loved ones killed. That would be expressing the problem in clear terms, rather than attempting to criticise a very material threat with the most vaporous of statements.

In addition, by describing the deranged and depraved action of the Syrian authorities against this district in these terms, people group it with the cross which is featured in the window of a crematorium. This kind of decoration is wrong, yes (I’m not saying that I care all that much); but there is plentiful secular logic with which one can arm one’s self to level a criticism, rather than grasping at the ‘human rights’ card without thinking.

Finally, the Baba Amr situation is grouped alongside the right which parents have to bring their children up in their own religious tradition — that is a right against which I would fight.

What is a shame, and it is a common tendency, is that people are too keen to talk in buzzwords or catchphrases, rather than in sentences. Firstly, it encourages the listener to forget the actual reasoning which lies behind a catchphrase; leading to a situation where the credulous can be moved by snappy platitudes. Sentences mean something; they can be challenged and fall or be upheld, and at the same time have the potential for far greater instrumentality; I want to hear the reasoning, and know why this pundit is making the assertion. Secondly, it is boring.

The crux is that people are tempted to claim something for themselves or others because it is a right. This is wrong — it is a right because they are justified in making that claim, they are founded in making that assertion because of some demand or logic somewhere. Something will be an entitlement according to how many people insist upon it, if this is the case it will become a right — it does not work the other way round. ‘You shouldn’t do that because of my right!’ no ‘This is my right because you shouldn’t do that!’ Attempting this in the inverse threatens a divorce from reality, and reality is where rights have their effect.

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