Does Human Rights Need God?

By Elizabeth M. Bucar; Barbra Barnett | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION:
The “Why” of Human Rights

ELIZABETH M. BUCAR AND BARBRA BARNETT

In the wake of the horrors of World War II, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1945. The UDHR declared to the world community that there are universal standards of human treatment. It also explicitly guaranteed for all citizens of its signatories protection of a bundle of specific rights. Many consider this event the beginning of a new era marking human rights as the philosophy, language, and politics of our time.

Given the pervasiveness of human rights talk in our contemporary society, one might be tempted to conclude that the world has finally reached undisputed consensus on human rights. Despite widespread agreement that there is a set of rights owed to us as human beings, however, there is still wide disagreement about which rights are contained in this set, as well as who should enforce them and how they should be enforced. These disagreements are particularly fierce across national and regional boundaries. The stark reality is that human rights abuses continue to occur, all around the world. Accounts of abuse of Iraqi prisoners, murder and torture of street children in Brazil, kidnapping and forced prostitution of women in Thailand, and genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo are just a few recent examples of the atrocities that mark our modern failures to enforce human rights.

How can we make sense of the fact that, in the last twenty years, even as international recognition of human rights has permeated our discourse, in practice human rights abuses are far too often a reality? Perhaps one way to gain purchase on this apparent paradox is to consider not what the UDHR sought to accomplish, but what it failed to address. UDHR had a limited goal, to articulate the specific human rights that member states could agree upon. The limited nature of this project is reflected in French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s comment on the debates preceding its drafting: “We agree

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