How right are rights?

How right are rights?

This delicate subject has been requested by several readers of The Daily Paradox. If only there was some simple answer! If only we could say categorically that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the sum of it all. If only it were. We live for better or for worse in the real world, where human rights and reality come face to face.

Nelson Mandela knew that. F.W. de Clerk knew that. These two former Presidents of South Africa are at the top of my list of Great People. They both suffered for human rights. They both won human rights. They did it virtually without a shot being fired. Of all your rights, you firstly have the right not to kill.

Charlie Chaplin knew human rights reality in his movie Limelight. I think one of the most memorable phrases I have heard came from it. Chaplin, the old actor / clown – both in the movie and in real life – was getting near death. He ponders about this and then says “I’ve died so many times”.

So have we all. Everyone who keeps a marriage, brings up children, runs a bit of industry or commerce, serves their country in arms or thought, all these have ‘died’ so many times. And yet of all the human rights, the right to life is surely the strongest. Perhaps the only way to deal with the paradox of rights to live is to remember one of Chaplin’s favourite sayings “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”

John Steinbeck knew about rights when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath and told the story of the 1930’s migration from my American family’s Midwest corn fields to California’s land of fruits. He saw suffering and violence as inevitable consequences of deprivation of human rights. I can never condone violence as a way to solve problems but I do understand that many think that it is the only way. When it proves to be so there is much suffering and loss.

Because human rights are a reality, not just a philosophy. They are lived out in the churches of the Philippines with prayers for deliverance from drug traffickers. They are lived out on the streets of Hong Kong with marches for the maintenance of freedoms the people have enjoyed for over a century. They are lived out in every courtroom in the world, day after day, as ordinary citizens seek the honour of justice. And often, at all these points, human rights are rejected because of timing or physical ability or power of control.

The reality is that the big boy in the school playground can successfully bully you to give him your lunch. There is no ultimate control over someone more powerful than you. All you can hope to do is to unite with others to provide an equal weight with which to shove. Taking up arms guarantees your demise. Passive resisting invites excessive assertion. Are we then to roll over and submit? Not for a moment. Arms may be unbalanced, media is potentially more powerful and can be on your side. Even a voice crying in the wilderness is a stand for human rights.

To advise in situations you don’t fully understand is to invite misinterpretation. When South Africa was at the political point where it had to have a black president, F W de Clerk negotiated with Mandela even though the ANC (Mandela’s party) was still using arms to assert its rights. de Clerk behaved in the way he thought would allow transfer of power with least loss of blood. And he was right. But it was one situation, a long time ago.

Other situations and times are never directly analogous. But the principle of Reality must always remember Rights is a sound one, and one that can work.

Let us hope that, in this dangerous world, with everything about us changing too fast to encompass, those who have the power will remember that you take the people with you or you take the highway to hell.

For the hell of repression is even worse than the hell of possession.