Hostages in Gaza, civilian casualties, war refugees from Ukraine, Christians persecuted in Egypt, Yezidis tortured in Iraq — these, the tired, poor and huddled of this world, share this salient feature: their dignity as human beings has been violated and torn from them. 

A more widespread respect for human rights would go far to prevent such tragedies. Yet as we arrive at the 75th anniversary of the global adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this weekend, too many aren’t sure whether they should even celebrate Human Rights Day, on Sunday, Dec. 10. 

As defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights are “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.” They protect each and every one of us, just by virtue of our being human. We don’t earn them; they are not granted by governments. They are inherently, intrinsically and inalienably ours.

Even so, it’s not uncommon for Americans to ignore or even condemn this universal declaration. To some, it may seem simply ineffective as legally nonbinding. And since the beginning of its 75-year existence there’s little to suggest it’s saved us from ourselves. Furthermore, some religious believers may see religious teachings as transcending human rights, making them redundant. Political conservatives, meanwhile, sometimes see principles of American constitutional law as trumping the international statement of rights, while worrying about socialist undertones in purported economic rights. 

This is understandable. After all, higher spiritual laws can seem to make secular statements of rights superfluous — especially when governments can never guarantee all of the declaration’s social and economic rights. And what about duties or responsibilities? Aren’t they as important as rights?

But it’s important to remember that early proponents of human rights believed these rights either originated with God or natural law. That helps explain the declaration’s emphasis on many vitally good principles, shared across the political and religious spectrum — from socialist nations to capitalist nations—as well as from many majority Muslim nations to Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Christian nations as well.

The premise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” articulates the essential value of every human being. This aligns with my own personal religious convictions as a Latter-day Saint that children are born innocent, and also that we are all literal children of a God who is our Father. 

And yet, some continue to see the declaration merely as a haven for extreme far-left and progressive ideas. True, a perilous but increasingly prevalent assumption from this ideological extreme is that human rights are mere social constructs, established by the presumed wishes of the people or worse yet by the powerful to subjugate those without power. But if people can create rights — as opposed to discovering them in the realm of enduring principles — then people can also take them away.

Rights important to persons of faith, such as freedom of religion and conscience, are jeopardized in a world that prioritizes social benefits over restraint and sacrifice. Hence the need for many more conservative voices in the human rights dialogue.

Consider four other reasons why moderate and conservative-minded persons and people of faith ought to sustain and celebrate these human rights efforts on the international stage: 

 1. A common moral starting point. In negotiations among peoples and governments over some of the most intractable problems of our time, we don’t all share the same religion, but nonbelievers and believers alike have come to agree in this declaration on such important points as people should not be subject to torture or deprived of their liberty without due process of a fair and humane legal system. A mutual respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its provisions can unite peoples with differing perspectives and agendas over common problems. 

2. Religious freedom protection outside potentially corrupt regimes. Authoritarian regimes dictating who can worship, when, where and how, and deciding the consequences for nonconformism, pose a serious threat to believers in many parts of the world. The American Constitution, for all its inspired value, provides no protection to minority faiths, including Latter-day Saint congregations and missionaries, outside the United States. In many countries it is only laws derived from the principles of religious freedom found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that allow believers to meet, profess and live their faith. 

This kind of protection can only be guaranteed when believers stay engaged in the process of defining, implementing and enforcing rights. Nonparticipants don’t get to make the rules. Faith communities need some recognition of human rights to fulfill their purposes. We ignore these rights at our peril.

3. Rights imply responsibilities. In a world where victimhood claims abound, many rightly point to the value of emphasizing responsibilities alongside rights. What they may not realize is that most human rights observers agree that each human right provision of the declaration implies a logically irrefutable, corresponding duty. If I have a right not to be tortured, governments and my fellow human beings have an accompanying responsibility to refrain from torturing. To maintain this equal emphasis on duties and rights, wise people need to remain engaged in the conversation.

4. Resolution of conflicting rights. Although human rights specialists assert that we can’t pick and choose which rights to support and prioritize, all serious observers know that there are times when rights contradict each other and need to be reconciled. Again, political conservatives might want to have a voice in how these contradictions are to be resolved. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a living document, subject to continued interpretation. It is widely acknowledged on the international stage as a fair statement of humanity’s aspirations, even by regimes with opposing interests. Like it or not, the declaration is here to stay. And thankfully, the spirit of the document suggests that persons of every political persuasion should respectfully participate in the ongoing interpretation of what human rights mean for our societies. 

While the world’s many abuses against our brothers and sisters cry out to us for prevention and eradication, it’s significant that, since the adoption of the declaration, most “flagrant and repeated instances of rights abuse now are brought to light,” as Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon states, “and most governments now go to great lengths to avoid being blacklisted as notorious violators.” 

When properly implemented, the modern human rights agenda helps bring to light all the hidden things of darkness in today’s tyrannical and lawless regimes. Again, having a voice in the process can make sure the discussion benefits from the values of people of faith.  

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Latter-day Saints in particular have something unique to offer here — in their conviction that the “worth of a soul is great” and that all human beings have a divine potential to become more like God. This is a very lofty understanding of human dignity indeed. My mention last year at an interfaith event in the United Arab Emirates that our church teaches even children about our divine nature brought approval and respectful inquiries by attendees. We have them singing “I am a child of God” from the moment they can croon a tune, I explained.

One BYU student participating in a European human rights study abroad program reflected on the ministry of Christ as she learned about human rights violations: “When Jesus atoned for us and felt all our pains, it was for all of us. That includes refugees and victims of sexual assault, discrimination and genocide. It made me think that it’s our duty to do what we can to help these people.”

Conservative or not. Religious or not. Human rights must be protected for everyone.

David M. Kirkham has been a Senior Fellow for Comparative Law and International Policy at the BYU Law School International Center for Law and Religion Studies since 2007, and is the new president of the International Society at the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies.

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