I'm a Human Rights Absolutist

December 10th marked the 61st anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Declaration) by the United Nations. It was celebrated locally and world wide as Human Rights Day.

The Declaration is a compilation of humanity’s greatest aspirations. I’ve found reading all of its 30 articles uplifting. The first two Articles of the Declaration set forth general principles: 1. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 2. “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration.” I’ve focused most of my attention during the last decade on Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Article 3 contains the first specific enumeration of particular rights. It makes sense that the first right articulated in the Declaration is the right of every person to life. After all, if you are killed none of the other rights are worth much. Although some might argue with me about this, I don’t believe Article 3 is an anti-abortion statement. Article 3 only attaches when someone becomes a “person,” and I do not believe a fetus is a person during the early stages of pregnancy.

I believe, however, that Article 3 outlaws capital punishment and as such it makes any nation’s death penalty a human rights abuse. In fact, during the debate over the Declaration’s adoption some urged that an exception to Article 3 be carved out for lawful executions carried out by nations. Eleanor Roosevelt argued that the Declaration should look forward to a time when there would be no executions, and her argument carried the day.

If the death penalty is a human rights abuse, then it is never acceptable. I don’t know how many times I’ve read or heard someone say the following: “I’m against capital punishment, but it would be OK for Hitler, or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (as at least one person wrote in response to my recent blog posting about him), or…” you can fill-in the blank. You can’t be a little pregnant here. You are not really against the death penalty unless you are against it for everyone in all circumstances.

I’ve thought a lot about the simple statement; “A human rights abuse is never acceptable.” This goes well beyond the death penalty. This understanding has sparked my realization that I’m not always the relativist I thought I was. I’ve become a human rights absolutist.

It occurs to me that neither my birth parents, nor my adoptive parents, would agree with me about this. Abel and Anne and Ethel and Julius were communists. They believed in working class solidarity. They believed in human rights for all workers, their families, and oppressed people everywhere. From their point of view they believed in complete and equal human rights for the vast majority of humanity. But I don’t think they necessarily believed in full human rights for class enemies, for the oppressors. While I can understand their position, I’ve come to disagree with it. It is quite a realization for his year’s Human Rights Day.


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