Until we come to terms with our own discriminatory practices, we remain unfit to articulate and protect rights abroad
By Robert W. Murray : In 1776, the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Both before and since, notions of intrinsic rights bestowed upon humans have been a topic of intense scrutiny, especially in the western world where we often equate notions of human rights with modern democratic society. Yet, in a world so often plagued by violations of human rights, we continue to struggle with being capable of protecting and enforcing these rights across the globe, and at times in our own backyard.
Most of our attention is dedicated to the meaning of “rights” and the extent to which they apply. When we speak of rights, are we referring to those bestowed through natural law or through positive law? Are rights restricted to national territorial boundaries or are they universal? Who is responsible for articulating and enforcing rights in the world today? Do international organizations and states share a collective responsibility for protecting rights, and if so, at what threshold is it apparent intervention is necessary?
One of the greatest challenges we face in striving for rights protection in the modern era has less to do about our conception of rights, and far more about our understanding of what we mean by “human”.
Those authors of the Declaration of Independence make specific reference to “men” as those created equal and that are endowed with natural rights. Though contemporary applications of American judicial theory would argue this reference would now extend to all people, the world in which Thomas Jefferson and others lived meant that such rights applied to men, and even more specifically white men.
This is not unique to the U.S., as we can find evidence throughout the history of western political thought where rights and privileges applied solely to citizens of the state or polis, and these most often were only men. The narrowly conceived method in which we have built rights theory throughout history has now led to a serious problem, being that people are by no means seen as fully equal and thus preventing human rights from being appropriately enforced.
How we conceive of a human, or as prominent University of Delaware scholar Dr. Matthew Weinert contends, how we “make human”, is at the core of why our current efforts at rights promotion and protection are falling short. Discrimination comes in many forms, whether it is cultural, racial, religious, class, gender or sexual orientation. Those crimes aimed at women and those identifying as L(esbian)G(ay)B(isexual)T(ransgender)Q(uestioning) are of particular concern in rights violations today, yet are rarely, if ever, granted equal consideration to those where men or militarism are involved. Rape, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and other such atrocities are committed on a daily basis in multiple nations, and these crimes are committed solely on the basis of perceived gender inequality. Further, crimes committed in the name of sexual orientation continue to be prevalent but are not placed on equal footing with others, seen recently with the murder of gay activist Eric Ohena Lembembe and Cameroon’s total lack of serious governmental response. Why is this so?
Even in the western world, we continue to struggle with our understanding of equality and humanity. Laws may articulate equality, but a Canadian woman still only earns $0.75 to every male $1.00, and same-sex couples are continually denied equal rights and are forced to endure awful examples of discrimination simply because they are gay. Look no further than the recent letter posted on a lesbian couple’s home in Kingston, Ontario by a “dedicated group of Kingston residents devoted to removing the scourge of homosexuality in our city.”
Until we come to terms with our own discriminatory practices, we remain utterly unfit to articulate and protect rights abroad. If all humans are, in fact, equal, we need to begin acting like it.
Robert W. Murray is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.