William L. Saunders, Jr.
Everybody knows that human rights are important, and that we must always respect them. What are human rights, though? To answer this question, I will take you back to World War II, a time when brutal fighting filled almost every country in every hemisphere of the world.
Throughout the war, many actions were taken that revolted the conscience. Military forces on both sides frequently bombed civilians in enemy countries intentionally. Soldiers took civilians out into fields and murdered them. There was also the torture of prisoners in concentration camps. Sometimes they would be tortured or starved even to the point of death. Sometimes scientists at concentration camps would run unbelievably cruel experiments on the prisoners, including pushing them into freezing water to see how long they could live. It was not only the Nazi’s who ran such deeply immoral experiments in their concentration camps. The Japanese also performed terrible experiments on the Chinese within concentration camps of their own.
After the United Nations was founded in 1948, the nations of the world issued a document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Crucially, this was not a mere wish-list reflecting the whims of the drafting committee that created it. It was borne out of the experience of the terrible human atrocities of the second world war. I want to point out a couple of things about it.
First, it protects the right to life. It says that everyone has the right to life, and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of their life. It also protects things like religious freedom, freedom of the press, freedom to have a fair trial, and the freedom not to be tortured.
These rights comport with the Catholic understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person. The universal declaration of human rights is based on a terrible experience of witnessing military men, scientists, public officers, and leaders of nations systematically violate the inherent dignity of other human beings on a massive scale. It lists those rights that we must respect in order to avoid committing the same atrocities all over again. I invite you to reflect on this document and the crucial insights it yields about the inherent dignity of each and every human being.