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10 December 2013

Human Rights: A matter of life and death

Human Rights: A matter of life and death

by Carla Prentice

On December 10, 1948, world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly and affirmed the intrinsic dignity and inalienable rights of all people. Today, 65 years on we celebrate Human Rights Day. In adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the international community committed to building a world where all people are "born free and equal in dignity and rights" and are entitled to liberty, equality, and justice under the law.

Although in Northern Ireland, most of us may not see our day to day lives in terms of human rights, life would be very different here without the legal protection they provide. In contrast, take Syria for example. Government, pro-government and anti-government forces have conducted widespread attacks on people living there. Intolerable crimes against humanity such as murder, rape and hostage taking are regular occurrences. According to the UN, more than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011 and almost one third of Syrians have fled their homes. This is not acceptable.

Closer to home we see other topical human rights concerns. A number of senior judges in Britain are preparing to make a landmark ruling to introduce the 'right to die' under human rights legislation. There has been a 50 year ban on assisted suicide but it has been said that the 1961 Suicide Act imposes a cruel limit on individual freedom. What concerns us in the developed Western world differs greatly from that in the rest of the world and care needs to be taken so that we do not change the concept of a human right to suit our self-focused views of personal freedom. To permit assisted suicide would seriously undermine the protection of the weak and the vulnerable, those whom the 1961 Suicide Act was intended to protect. A change in the law may pressure the elderly, the sick, the disabled to end their lives.

In Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice has announced a consultation with a view to changing the law on abortion. This follows from the claims by two pregnant women, bearing babies with severe fetal abnormalities, that they were being denied rights of access to terminations that are available to all other women in the UK. Life and the right to life are ultimately gifts from God and should only be given and taken by Him. We should constantly remind ourselves of the fact that we are made in the image of God and should treat life with dignity and respect. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). As we are instructed by God's word, we should fight for the cause  against human suffering in the world and seek to protect the lives of the weak and the vulnerable.

Human rights are, at their core, a matter of life and death. They are about equity and fairness and balancing competing, and often conflicting, concerns well. We affirm their value, however we also challenge an individualistic and consumeristic approach to rights which is growing in the West. Rights are being individualised often to the detriment of the common wellbeing of everyone else in society. This selfish approach to rights often takes place outside the context of relationship and responsibility.

As evangelicals, called to lay down our rights in service of the King, the language of rights can be uncomfortable. We may prefer other words, like freedom or dignity, but we get the concept because it's core to our understanding of God and His created world. We hold that human beings are made in the image of God and are inherently worthy of respect, regardless of their abilities, status, race religion, age, gender or sexual orientation Human dignity, justice and freedom are core ideals in the discussion of human rights and the Bible has important things to say about them all. In Zechariah 7:9, we are told to "administer true, justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor."

Today, this Human Rights day, don't just read this article. Engage yourself, educate yourself. Take time to appreciate the rights and responsibilities that you have and exercise them; call your local MLA, fix something that needs fixing, write a letter to your local newspaper, lend your voice to the voiceless, do something! Use your freedom to help others in the world gain theirs.