Basic rights of being, often called human rights, are only a beginning step toward justice, but an essential one. Basic rights of being include the right not to be violated – violations take many forms.
- I regard as impious and detestable the maxim that in matters of government the majority of a people has the right to do everything, and nevertheless I place the origin of all powers in the wishes of the majority. Am I in contradiction with myself? There exists a general law which has been made, or at least adopted not only by the majority of this or that people but by the majority of all men. This law is justice. Justice thus forms the limit to the right of each people. [Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835), Volume One, Book One, Chapter XV, “Unlimited Power of the Majority and Its Consequences,” Part II, “Tyranny of the Majority”.]
Thomas Jefferson wrote that the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were God-given and inalienable. That states a marvelous ideal but not a reality. People and their governments, including Jefferson’s government, have denied these rights regularly and systematically.
Human rights is a central liberal value but we would be dishonest if we did not acknowledge that people choose to accord rights to others, and often have chosen not to honor those rights. We would also be dishonest if we did not acknowledge that life presents ethical challenges that are not only difficult but practically impossible. For example, when a group of people, such as nation, is under attack, some innocent lives may be lost in defense of other innocent lives. Hard as it may be to admit, all ethics are situational, including human rights.
When a polity adopts a commitment to the rights of living beings, that commitment must be seen in the context of circumstances. People may fear that an honest acknowledgement of reality leaves the door too wide open for abuse but history offers little reason to think that people are any more likely to keep an unrealistic commitment. History is full of human rights abuses, including in the United States. Perhaps by being honest, and by taking our values seriously, we can begin the long road toward an enduring system of justice.
I have mentioned my great-aunt, who was a slave in Dr. Flint's family, and who had been my refuge during the shameful persecutions I suffered from him. This aunt had been married at twenty years of age; that is, as far as slaves can marry. She had the consent of her master and mistress, and a clergyman performed the ceremony. But it was a mere form, without any legal value. Her master or mistress could annul it any day they pleased. She had always slept on the floor in the entry, near Mrs. Flint's chamber door, that she might be within call. When she was married, she was told that she might have the use of a small room in an outhouse. Her mother and her husband furnished it. He was a seafaring man, and was allowed to sleep there when he was at home. But on the wedding evening, the bride was ordered to her old post on the entry floor. [Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Chapter XXVIII, Aunt Nancy.]
Champions of human rights:
- Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Chilhood (Aventura, 1983).
- Wole Soyinka, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (Random House, 2006).
- Wole Soyinka, Of Africa (Yale University Press, 2012).
Abuses of human rights:
- Amelia Pang, Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods (Algonquin 2021): “. . . Pang’s book feels timely and urgent. Her argument starts here, in the room with the mushrooms, and goes like this: that the way we consume is unsustainable; that things as seemingly trivial as paper mushrooms and Halloween decorations are entangled in a system that hides atrocity by design and makes complicity — with authoritarian governments, with dangerous working conditions and even with religious persecution — part of modern life.”
- Michael Wrong, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad (PublicAffairs, 2021): “. . . perhaps the most ambitious attempt yet to tell the dark story of Rwanda and the region’s deeply intertwined tragedies for a general audience . . .”
- Joan Miró, Human Rights
Film and Stage
- Moolaadé: a woman leads a successful protest against female circumcision in a village in Burkina Faso.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Benjamin Britten, Billy Budd, Op. 50 (1951) (approx. 160-170 minutes), “is based on a novel of the same name by Herman Melville”, in which a ship’s captain reflects on the noble sailor whose life he could have saved. “Britten’s operas often reveal a fascination with misunderstood innocents; Billy is one such type. That the ship on which he formerly served was called the Rights of Man, to which he must bid farewell, becomes symbolic.” “. . . Britten establishes a tense, triangular battle of wills. At one point sits Capt. Vere, the insightful but weak-willed commander of the H.M.S. Indomitable, and at the other is the ship’s master-at-arms, John Claggart, a figure of unrelievedly cartoonish villainy. The title character — a seraphically beautiful foundling who’s been pressed into service from a ship none-too-subtly named the Rights-of-Man — is the battleground on which these two do battle.” Here are links to performances conducted by Mackerras, Runnicles, Hickox and Britten.
With a compelling blend of tight harmonies, a deep expression of human dignity and an attitude that combines optimism and compassion, the a capella singing troupe from South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, expresses the ideal of human rights in music. The group’s career began during apartheid, and continued until its founder’s death in 2020. Their albums include:
- “Songs from Lindiwe” (2019) (48’)
- “Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers” (2016) (58’)
- “Music from Inala: A Zulu Ballet” (2014) (50’)
- “Songs from a Zulu Farm” (2011) (47’)
- “Kobuye Kulunge” (2010) (35’)
- “Shintsha Sithothobala” (2007) (33’)
- “Two Worlds, One Heart” (1990) (49’)
- “Inkazimulo” (1985) (38’)
- “Nqonqotha Mfana” (1980) (37’)
- “Isitimela” (1974) (36’)
- “Umama Lo!” (1974) (31’)
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars “have risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of war and enflamed the passions of fans across the globe with their uplifting songs of hope, faith and joy. The band is a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact.” Their albums include:
- “Libation” (2014) (48’)
- “Radio Salone” (2012) (65’)
- “Rise and Shine” (2010) (56’)
- “Living Like a Refugee” (2006) (73’)
In addition to his brilliant releases on civil rights, Wadada Leo Smith has given us at least two albums that are better categorized as being about human rights. Smith says: “What defines all of us as human beings is the inspiration and knowledge to make coherent choices, informed through science, art, and authentic spiritual practice to develop a genuine care for others and the world we live in.”
- “Human Rights” (1985) (53’)
- “Kulture Jazz” (1993) (53’), is “a true masterwork of its kind and one of the purest, most enlightening demonstrations of the connected natures of folk, blues, jazz, and creative music.”
Amnesty International has sponsored a series of Human Rights Concerts, enlisting artists from around the world in the cause of human rights. Many other concerts were given, in addition to those linked below.