World Human Rights Day – Saturday December 10

9 December 2016

By Andy Hamilton SJ


Human Rights Day nestles close to Christmas.  That is appropriate. They have the same message: each human being is precious and should be respected.

Christmas says this in soft ways with a hard edge.  It is about God loving each of us enough to join us as a vulnerable baby. But the stories of Christmas also contain reminders of the terrifying future of the child. His flight into Egypt to escape from Herod’s murderous plans point forward to his death. His human rights will again be violated when unjustly condemned, tortured and executed.

Human Rights Day says in hard ways that each human being must be respected. It invites us to stand up for people when their rights are threatened and to protest against it. It reminds us that when we acquiesce in the infringement of one person’s human rights, the violations will spread deeper and affect other people like mould in a basket of oranges.

Catholic teaching grounds human rights in our shared humanity.  Each human being is precious in God’s eyes, and demands respect simply for being human, not for being wealthy or virtuous or popular. The demand for respect comes from the fact that we are all brothers and sisters.

Human rights spell out in detail what our responsibility to one another demands. They list many of the things we need as human beings. So we say that each human being has a right to eat, to shelter, to an education, to equality under the law, to work, to security, and to freedom of movement, political views and worship. When governments deny these things to groups of their citizens they violate their human rights.

In Australia the human rights of people who seek protection are systematically violated in many ways. The brutal treatment of people on Nauru, described by the United Nations as torture, violates the right to personal security and to freedom of movement. The ban on family reunion for twenty years contravenes the right of children to live with their families. The denial of work rights, restriction of access to study and other things central to people’s flourishing again deny the ordinary rights of all human beings in a wealthy society.

Those who find it expedient to violate human rights will always be offended by those who condemn the violation. That is why talk about human rights has such a hard edge.  In many nations it is common for journalists who publicise human rights abuses to be killed by those responsible for the abuse. In Western democracies it is also common for those who defend the human rights of minority groups to be attacked by government ministers and relentlessly pursued by compliant media.  We have seen this shamelessly done in Australia.

World Human Rights Day offers an opportunity to reflect on our own society and the way in which human rights are respected or disrespected.

It also offers an opportunity to honour those throughout the world and in our own nation who have at great cost defended the human rights of others, particularly of refugees and of people seeking protection, and to ask ourselves gently how we ourselves have responded to the denial of their right.