International Unitarian Universalism

Human Rights: What and How?

By Bruce Knotts

This post was originally sent out on February 19 via a monthly email message from Director Bruce Knotts of the Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the United Nations. Subscribe to the UU@UN email list.

 An artistic interpretation of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, depicting a bird flying with a person on its back and the text “All Human Beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”

Artistic depictions of each article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are displayed at UN Headquarters in New York City.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

- First article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted December 10, 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

- First Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, adopted June 1985 by the UUA General Assembly

Where do human rights come from?

Who is responsible for making sure we all have access to all human rights?

As Unitarian Universalists, many of us believe it is up to all of us to affirm and promote the worth and dignity of every person. It is up to us to make sure that we all have equal and sufficient access to all human rights, including the rights to education, healthcare, housing, food, clean water, clean air, and all the rest.

All rights must be guaranteed by the law and funded by governments as directed by the people in whose name those governments operate. Without enforcement and funding, human rights are just words.

But governments, although at their best a reflection of their people's wishes, sometimes have their own ideas about which rights to fund and defend.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set up a Commission on Unalienable Rights to promote traditional Biblical rights and to push back on what they called "manufactured rights," such as those enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The only recognized sources of rights were those enumerated in the Bible and in America’s founding documents. Slavery could exist, women would remain subjected to men, and only white men who owned property could vote.

In fact, the phrases "human rights" and "climate change" were actually banned in the Department of State and in all official statements and documents of the Trump Administration.

Russia and other nations have similarly pushed back on progress made in human rights over the past couple of centuries. Russia and its supporters have successfully passed resolutions about "respecting the traditional family" in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Fortunately, the United States has now returned to the Human Rights Council, where it can articulate a more human rights-positive message.

So, the question remains, are human rights unalienable or manufactured?

It has become clear to me that human rights are what we collectively agree that they are.

Interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, women’s reproductive and health rights did not exist anywhere when I was born in 1949. They exist now in many counties around the world, because societies agreed that they should exist.

Human Rights only exist when society forces government to guarantee access to those rights through laws and funding.

In 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt called for a new Bill of Rights, including among others the right to earn enough for adequate food, clothing, and recreation; the right to a decent home; and the right to economic support in old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.

President Roosevelt died before realizing his new bill of rights. However, some of those rights have been partially realized in subsequent legislation.

Roosevelt’s New Bill of Rights inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee of the UDHR, which was adopted four years later by the UN and which expanded on FDR’s hopes.

In all our history, the only guarantee we have of any rights at all is what are willing to fight to achieve, struggle to maintain, work to ensure effectiveness, and enforce.

It is up to us to have government pay to protect and fully and equitably implement established human rights.

Therefore, the UU@UN remains vigilant and pushes hard with all the allies we can find to maximize human rights: civil, political, social, cultural, economic.

What will we consider to be an essential human right in the future? The right to a guaranteed annual income? The right to clean water, clean air, enough food? The right to migrate?

Call it "manufacturing rights" if you want. I’d rather expand human rights than live with the paltry ration of "unalienable rights" available in the 18th century.

The world won’t progress by reducing the rights we enjoy. A better world can be achieved by "manufacturing" all the rights necessary for that better world.


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About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...


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