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From Salvationist 8 December 2018

Feature | Human rights


Lieut-Colonel Dean Pallant argues that the future of human rights depends on people of faith promoting a better understanding of what it means to be human

THIS month marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed on 10 December 1948 in Paris. Events have been held around the world during the year to mark the anniversary.

A few months ago I was in São Paulo, where The Salvation Army in Brazil arranged a symposium to consider the future of human rights in the light of Christianity, migration and refugees, violence against women and human trafficking. As one of the speakers, I asked a provocative question: ‘Happy 70th birthday, human rights – will you survive the 21st century?’

In recent years we have witnessed the rise of populism and me-first politics. It is no longer crazy to ask if human rights are fit to be the glue that binds together the world’s laws, politics and morality. Nations may want human rights for themselves and their friends, but there is declining concern for minorities and foreigners. An increasing number of politicians are distancing themselves from the concept of universal human rights and prefer to talk of national rights. Slogans such as ‘Britain First’ or ‘America First’ undermine the foundations of the UDHR.

We are living at a time in world history where, according to Larry Cox, the former deputy secretary-general of Amnesty International, ‘increasingly interconnected global economic and social systems relentlessly and ruthlessly are creating truly obscene levels of riches, privilege and power for a tiny minority of mostly men. At the same time the income most people need to survive has stagnated or dramatically declined for decades’.

Many parts of the Christian Church have aligned with the UDHR. When Pope John Paul II addressed the UN General Assembly in 1979 he defined it as ‘a true milestone on the path of humanity’s moral progress’. And in 1968 The Salvation Army published Human Rights And The Salvation Army. General Frederick Coutts wrote in the foreword: ‘In Human Rights Year Salvationists are identified with the high ideals of social justice and acceptance as the unchallenged right of every man as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’

However, in recent years the embracing of human rights by Christians has become controversial. The Judaeo-Christian foundations on which the UDHR was built have been eroded, with one of the reasons for a crisis of confidence in those rights being the problem of how they are defined. We can no longer simply point to the 30 articles in the UDHR as the definition of human rights because, over 70 years, they have developed into a multi-faceted, comprehensive way of thinking and living. Many new treaties – human rights instruments – have extended the meaning of those rights and the scope of human rights law. Human rights discourse, says Linda Hogan, is now viewed by some of its critics as ‘nothing more than individualism, secularism and Western political imperialism in disguise’.

I argued in my four lectures in Brazil that human rights needs religion to survive the 21st century. This is not the moment for Christians to give up; in fact, we must raise our voices. The future of human rights depends on people of faith promoting a richer, multi-layered appreciation of what it means to be human. Christians believe every person is made in the image of God. We are integrated beings of body-soul-for-relations. Every person is created for a purpose that lasts into eternity...

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