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What Are Human Rights?

By far, the most common question I get is, “so what actually are human rights?”.

The very fact that the question is asked so often is indicative of something I often speak about. Modern societies have continually strayed away from uniform or agreed upon principles and virtues which everybody agrees to respect and uphold, towards more amorphous and malleable rights frameworks which simultaneously encourage people to believe whatever they want, whilst ensuring that the State has the authority and discretion to turn off rights protections when it deems it necessary or prudent to do so.

This is problematic because it renders people foundationless (they have no agreed upon set of virtues of principles to revert to in times of uncertainty) and protectionless (they have no recourse when the State unilaterally decides to switch off whatever measly rights protections they apparently had).

So, today, nobody really knows what ‘human rights’ are. I mean, I have my perspective on it. But so do you. And so does your neighbour. And so does the Saudi Government. And so does the Amish farmer. And all of our perspectives are entirely different based on our own cultures and schemas and belief systems.

So, in order to find some common ground, and in order to retake sovereignty of the dignity and power that is intrinsic in our humanness, we need to ask a different question, and that question is;

What is the Truth of our existence here?

Let me explain:


The point I’m trying to make above is that we all have a pretty accurate radar for Truth, because we can actually feel when we are in alignment with it. For example, nobody argues that processed foods are good for us, or that being sedentary is good for us, or that consuming mainstream media is good for us. We feel the harms these things cause us. All of these are encouraged by the system we live in, because the system that we live in is not in alignment with Truth, or our wellbeing.

A good way to answer the question of “what is a human right” is therefore to reframe the question. Instead we can ask, “what is in alignment with our thriving as human beings”? That is a better question, and a much better way to identify our enemies as well.

If a person, system or institution is producing or encouraging or mandating something that harms us, they are not our friend, and they are not in alignment with Truth, or “human rights”, or more importantly, with human beings. They are literally attacking who and what we are.

Most Human Societies Looked at Truth, not ‘Rights’

The seven core international human rights treaties and covenants created in the aftermath of World War II do something that in most human societies would have been seen as profane. They allow for exceptions, exemptions and derogations from basic principles and virtues that humanity has held as sacred for hundreds of thousands of years.

Although these exceptions are supposed to be rare, executed only when “the life of the nation is at risk” and only in accordance with “the strict exigencies of the circumstances”; the very presence of potential exception is enough to ensure two things;

  1. First, that somebody gets to decide when these protections can be turned on and off; and
  2. Second, that somebody, being the State, will do so in accordance with its own interests, which are almost always not accordant with the interests of the people it governs.

It is important to understand that human rights protection frameworks and philosophies with exceptions built into them are a relatively new phenomenon. Most human societies throughout history understood that the Truth of our existence here; our very nature as human beings, was something that was considered sacred and non-derogable.

In Ancient Egypt – the 42 laws of Ma’at enshrined free will, the right to life and the virtue of integrity as inextricable parts of the human experience.

The Greek and Hellenistic period emphasised natural law: principles of justice which were in accordance with nature, unalterable and eternal. One classic example is the story of Antigone who defied Creon’s command not to bury her slain brother by claiming that she was obeying immutable laws higher than the ruler’s command.

Then we have John Locke and natural rights theory: Locke imagined the existence of human beings in a state of nature; in that state men and women were in a state of freedom, able to determine their actions, and also in a state of equality in the sense that no one was subjected to the will or authority of another, but were instead subject to the will and authority of nature itself.

The Magna Carta, a document which still stands as law in Australia, but which has been misinterpreted such that the current legal system mostly does not recognise it, speaks of the divinity inside each man and woman, and the peril that is bound to befall any State or Government that intentionally, recklessly or negligently corrupts that divinity.

What, then, should we make of a State and Government and System that has poisoned its food, its water, its medicine and its air? Is that System our friend or our foe?

When we ask the question; “what are human rights?”, it’ll send us into a debate, which no matter how interesting, won’t help us practically deal with the mess around us today.

When we instead ask something like, “what is the Truth of our existence here?”, or, “what aligns with our wellbeing as humans?”, we might just remember that it does not matter what somebody or some-entity says our rights are. What matters is who we are, and what we’re willing to do to defend that sanctity.