The Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – A Rabbi’s Reflection

This Saturday morning many synagogues, including The LJS, will take the opportunity to mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10th December). The Universal Declaration was established in the wake of the Holocaust (in 1948), one of the most devastating periods in the history of humanity. It therefore holds special significance for all Jews, and I suspect for that matter, all other minority groups who were murdered and suffered at the hands of the Nazis simply for being different. Anyone who mocks the importance of Human Rights and the legislation that enshrines those rights within the judicial system, is, in my opinion, suffering from an extremely short memory or has never understood what it means to be vulnerable to the whim of those who hold power and is therefore a fool.

It is, of course, fashionable to talk of responsibilities as being more important, or at least on a par with rights. Religious communities have often been at the front of this debate.  At least from a Jewish perspective, regardless of denominational affiliation, we teach all year round about the individual taking responsibility for their actions – whether the sense of obligation for their actions comes from a higher power, a historical tradition, or one’s own individual conviction.

However, as talk of ‘responsibilities’ has become more popular, it has become equally popular to turn Human Rights legislation into some kind of farcical system that undermines state sovereignty. After all, if I have recourse to a legal process that protects my human rights, which results in a ruling in my favour against the seeming collective good then there appears to be a problem – at least according to tabloid newspapers and politicians seeking an easy target.  Issues falling into this category include the protection of asylum seekers, compensation culture and criminal’s rights held as more important than the victim of crime.

This degradation of the way in which our society values Human Rights legislation is a slippery path and indicates to me the extent to which we have lost sight of the importance that we must all hold for the protection of minorities, the vulnerable and the oppressed.

To my mind, duties and responsibilities are ideas that are active. Active in that I have the power myself to behave in a certain way. I can take responsibility both for my actions and the consequences of my actions. I am fortunate that I feel relatively sovereign over my own destiny and live in a democracy that tries to ensure that I can live a free and enjoyable life. However, not all members of our society are similarly placed – they may be subject to violence and discrimination simply because they are different, they may be vulnerable for a whole host of reasons that leave them feeling like the control over their future lies not with themselves but with others. And coming from mainland Europe in the turn of the 20th Century and in the 1930s my family history tells me that a change in fortune can lie just around the corner. It could be any of us who need the protection of Human Rights laws.

So on the other hand, it seems to me that rights exist in a passive state and it is necessary for someone or something (a legal system) to protect them.  I have to wait (or perhaps pray) for others to defend my rights.  With the helpless or powerless this is the model and it is why we must enshrine Human Rights in legislation that compels the State and the judiciary to act and protect us all – so that I do have recourse to the courts if I think my rights are being violated. Without mandating the responsibilities of those in power to protect those without power, Human Rights will simply exist in theory but not in reality. Instead of mocking the law, it would be far more helpful for our media, politicians and other leaders to draw out the complexities of how Human Rights law functions alongside other features of the judiciary. Instead of mocking the law, it is high time that we remembered our collective past and our duty to protect the weak and the vulnerable in society – a fundamental feature of true civilisation.

For that reason, I am proud that synagogues will be marking the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and proud that the Jewish community is able to contribute to our national debate on the role of rights and responsibilities.

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