Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO HUMAN RIGHTS? 

If you're like most Canadians, you're probably wondering exactly what the term "rights" refers to nowadays. The 1960s saw the steady advancement of a host of "rights" movements, beginning with the civil rights movement. Today, there are women's rights, gay rights, visible minority rights, and environmental rights, just to name a few.

Each of these movements has spawned a number of special interest groups-like Greenpeace, Queer Nation, or the Right to Die Society-dedicated to advancing the "rights" of their particular group. Of course, we have all noticed, particularly in arguments surrounding abortion, that one "right" sometimes conflicts with another.

How are we supposed to decide whose "right" is right?

It used to be much easier. That's because we used to think of rights as being rooted in permanent, universal principles, which, as even the Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares, "recognize the supremacy of God."

Such rights do not change with the times or because of the whim of government. They are fundamental for all people for all time. And as such, they serve to protect each and every one of us-especially against the potentially abusive power of the state.

But there is another important element to our understanding of rights that is too often ignored now-the idea of responsibility. Human rights should not be primarily based on what is "owed" as, but rather on what we owe each other.

Sadly, such sentiments have little real meaning in the "do what's good for yourself" 90s. More and more, we are only concerned with ensuring that our "rights" are being fulfilled. The term "rights" now really has come to mean entitlements, and the government, the courts, and human rights tribunals are seen as the primary dispensers of those entitlements.

The battles over who gets what are being fought most fiercely in the political arena. And the battles are brought to the people through the media, which is only too willing to bring us the latest "controversy" or "outrage." Lost in the power struggle and the attempt to balance conflicting "rights" is the idea that we can actually discern what is right.

You see, for that to happen, we need to believe that there are laws that stand above us and protect us all. Most importantly, we need to recognize the supremacy of God as the lawgiver. But in our secular age, we have elevated ourselves to the position of s u p r e m e lawgiver. We freely fashion our own laws as we see fit. And this is where the real danger begins.

How do we decide whose "rights" are worthy of protection? Our standard for justice has b e c o m e dependent on the latest opinion poll. Ironically, making shifting opinions the basis of rights will not make us any more free and democratic. On the contrary, we are rapidly drifting towards the day when might makes right.

To avoid that outcome, the Charter's reference to the supremacy of God must become more than merely a perfunctory bow to an almost forgotten tradition. In fact, freedom is now seriously endangered by the new ideas of rights, despite the ringing declarations of official documents.

Freedom can thrive only when it lives in the hearts and souls of citizens devoted to its preservation, even when such requires sacrifice. But this is one of the hardest lessons to accept in these rights-obsessed times. 

JUNE/JULY 1995