“I want to suggest some ways in which we might reconnect thinking about human rights and religious conviction – more specifically, Christian convictions about human dignity and human relatedness, how we belong together. Similar points may emerge from other kinds of religious belief. I believe this reconnection can be done by trying to understand rights against a background not of individual claims but of the question of what is involved in mutual recognition between human beings. I believe that rights are a crucial way of working out what it is for people to belong together in a society. The language gets difficult only when it is divorced from that awareness of belonging and reciprocity. This is not just to make the obvious (and slightly tired) point about rights and responsibilities. It is to see the world of ‘rights’ as anchored in habits of empathy and identification with the other.
Religion, he says, contributes a doctrinal core to the underlying principles of universality and freedom. Whilst religion could not claim a monopoly on a universal understanding of human nature, it could articulate precisely why human rights were universal; that the nature of humanity created in God’s image requires both equality and an abstracted view of rights, independent of political and social systems:
“that this language takes for granted that there are some things that remain true about the nature or character of human beings whatever particular circumstances prevail and whatever any specific political settlement may claim. While this is not – as a matter of fact – a set of convictions held uniquely by religious people, religious people will argue that they alone have a secure ‘doctrinal’ basis for believing it, because they hold that every human subject is related to God independently of their relation to other subjects or to earthly political and social systems. ….take away this moral underpinning, and language about human rights can become either a purely aspirational matter or something that is simply prescribed by authority. If it is the former, it is hard to see why legal systems should be expected to enshrine such recognitions. If it is the latter, its force depends on the will of some actual legal authority to enforce it; the legitimacy of such an authority would have to be established; and there would be no inbuilt guarantee that the unconditionality of the rights in question would always be honoured.
While recognizing current tensions, Dr Williams points to examples where the religious language of human dignity has deepened commitment to defend human rights. This, he says, can be illustrated from recent history:
“It is not an academic point: in the last century, the Church in South Africa or the Democratic Republic of Germany – to take just two examples – was perhaps the most significant context in which universal, non-negotiable human dignity could be affirmed and defended. … For rights language to lose the link with religious language and institutions would be for it to lose something historically crucial.
Dr Williams goes on to outline how law should not be seen as conferring abstract legal entitlements, divorced from any idea about human interrelatedness:
“Law does not offer a comprehensive definition of the answers to such claims but establishes a process for scrutinising them and a way of ending debates by way of public decisions announced by recognized authorities. In this sense, law is bound to be ‘reactive’: what people think about themselves changes, what they think is possible changes, and the law has to assess whether any particular fresh claim that protection is inadequate is a reasonable one. And this is triggered by the kind of public argument that – if we look at recent and not so recent history - leads to major shifts in what we think is necessary to overcome the exclusion of certain people from the society to which they think they belong.
He illustrates this with examples of the major changes that have occurred in recent times with the development of legal protection for various minority groups - whether religious, ethnic or sexual - from discrimination or persecution:
“The advance of legislation around the protection of ethnic minorities, not only from very specific kinds of practical discrimination but also from demeaning public speech, reflects such a reactive move: ‘civic discourse and practice’, the developing moral and imaginative awareness of a society, lead us to recognize that certain ways of speaking and behaving habitually restrict the possibilities of certain groups, implicitly as well as explicitly. Where it has been commonplace to use stereotypic words and images of others, we come to see that by using such words and pictures we are in effect treating some person or group as people we need not fully recognize as fellow-humans and fellow-citizens, people who do not belong in the same way that we do. And once that is acknowledged, the law properly steps in to do what it is there to do – secure recognition.
Ultimately, he says, human rights indicate a mutual recognition within communities which share a civic context:
“The fundamental point is not so much that every person has a specific set of positive claims to be enforced, but that persons and minority groups of persons need to be recognized as belonging to the same moral and civic world as the majority, whatever differences or disagreements there may be. And I want to argue that a proper consideration of human rights has a better chance of sustaining its case if it begins from the recognition of a common dignity or worthiness of respect among members of a community than if it assumes some comprehensive catalogue of claims that might be enforceable.
In his conclusion Dr Williams points to a crucial role that religion plays in the human rights debate - offering a vocabulary which finds an expression for a proper sense of outrage at the violation of human rights; that their denial and or breach touches on the blasphemous:
“It is this that religious doctrine offers to the institutions and dialects of ‘human rights’, and it is a vital contribution. It is essential that, in an age that is often simultaneously sentimental, utilitarian and impatient, we do not allow the language of rights to wander too far from its roots in an acknowledgement of the sacred.