They Are Endowed By Their Creator With Certain Unalienable Rights…

Posted on December 14, 2011


Early in December I attended a conference in Washington DC on human rights. It wasn’t sponsored by the government but by a small college, Alma College, in Michigan founded by the Presbyterians.

It was not a political rally or a forum with code words promoting one political agenda over another.

It was devoted to the moral and ethical commitments we as a people hold very dear, expressed best perhaps in our Declaration of Independence, and the first ten amendments (the “bill of rights”) to the Constitution.

Ask yourself, if you were interviewed, as a numbe
r of “men and women in the street” were in a short video shown at the conference,
“What are human rights?” Quick. What are they?

You have the leisure to think about it. Your fellow citizens responded, for the most part, with a mixture of “UhS,” to “oh, well you know, liberty and all that,” to “oh, that’s a big question!”

But it is not so big or so complicated or so controversial for us to ignore. It is, in fact, a fundamental building block of our American civilization.

The conference covered human rights, from the ancients to the modern national security state.

From antiquity we were reminded (for me, learned for the first time) that the Code of Cyrus the Great was the earliest expression of human rights.

And from multiple presentations by lawyers, professors, pastors and priests human rights right slowly came into focus.

The origin of the conference is owed to a sermon preached by the Dominican priest, Antonio de Montesinos, five hundred years ago to the day, in a small church in the city of Santo Domingo, today’s capital of the Dominican Republic.

Father Montesinos, taking as his theme the voice in the wilderness, tore into his listeners, mostly Spanish settlers and conquistadors.
They were destroying the Taino Indians by their greed for gold and their brutality.

“Are these not men?” Montesinos railed.

“Do they not have rationale souls?”

He raised the banner of justice for all men, regardless of race or creed, and so set the bar of human rights very high for those of us in this New World.

In our country, human rights were expressed first as natural rights, as in “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.”

This affirmation is part of our collective DNA, deeply imbedded in our national psyche.

Over the years we have added to or explained what human rights mean to us.

Woodrow Wilsons’s Fourteen Points for peace in the world at the end of the Great War (1914-18) called for the rights of all peoples to self-determination and the end of colonialism.

In 1941, as we plunged into a second World War, Franklin Roosevelt defined what we were fighting for as the Four Freedoms: Freedom of speech and expression; Freedom of worship; Freedom from want; and Freedom from fear.

We were the prime movers and one of original signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that serves as prologue and constitution to the United Nations. President Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, was elected chairman of the commission which drafted this modern expression of human rights.

Martin Luther King, Jr., himself deeply formed by his Christian faith, reaffirmed the inclusivity of human rights in his famous “I have a dream” speech delivered—most appropriately—on the steps of the memorial to Abraham Lincoln in August, 1963.

I think I took away from this conference not only a new appreciation for how our human rights have formed us as a people, but also for the laws which give definition and force to human rights.

While Christian pulpits have often served to remind those listening of their rights and obligations, it is the lawyers and the political leaders who have codified and created the living instruments to enforce human rights.

Next time you have a chance to query a politician, whether she is your local representative to the city or county government, or a tweet or text to Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, or Barack Obama, ask them about human rights.

Be specific.

“What are the five (or six or seven) fundamental human rights,” for example, “that governs your decision-making Mr. Speaker, Congresswoman, or Mr. President?”

And if they don’t give you a solid answer, tell them to do their homework.

And, lastly, a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, to bring us down to earth from the lofty perch of great declarations and monumental morality.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Eleanor Roosevelt
Published Sunday December 11, 2011, the 500th Anniversary of the Montesinos Sermon, The Tuscaloosa News

Posted in: Human Rights