2009#1 - Human Rights and Spiritual Responsibilities

We live in a time where human rights are regarded as unexceptional, and are seen as the most useful way to guarantee morality in the public sphere. So much so, that, even in countries where governments are oppressive, they still feel obliged to defend their human rights records. It is easy to underestimate what a huge advance this is. Much of the credit for this fact is due to the worldwide influence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has achieved in its sixty years of existence. Written in the aftermath of World War Two, it was intended to give effect to the UN Charter’s provisions on human rights. It has become a kind of gold standard, against which national behaviour is measured.

Given this widespread influence, we are justified in asking what is the ultimate basis of rights? It would be possible to tie ourselves into philosophical knots over the answer. But if we acknowledge a spiritual dimension to existence, the answer becomes simple: the origin of rights lies in the fact that every single sentient being is a manifestation of the One Life, an expression of the Divine Purpose. As a result, every being is equally valuable, in the deepest possible way. This is the basis for the claim, voiced in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…” (emph. added), in other words, the notion that human rights are universal. This may be the most controversial element of the Declaration. By claiming this fundamental identity of all human beings, it cuts across all differences of culture and religion. A speaker from World Goodwill put it this way at the New York Symposium:

The right to be human. It is perhaps the very first right that every human being has, no matter where he or she is born, no matter in which country, no matter the economic or religious circumstance, or whether rich or poor, male or female. It seems like an obvious right; we are human; we are citizens of a kingdom in nature; we are here in a physical body expressing very human attributes and qualities; we are endowed with life by our Creator. So why shouldn’t we have the right to be what we are – human?
Exactly. We have the right to be a fully developed human being. It is a right bestowed by Divinity. And yet, there are some in the human family – some who are not fully human themselves – who would deny our right to develop our fullest potential. By exercising their powers of selfish discrimination, they separate one group of humans from another, and rule that the group they choose shall have the right to develop ahead of all others. They erect false rules and barriers, castes systems, religious and wealth systems to keep all others in their subservient place. And these divisions are often sanctioned by man-made laws or by established traditions and beliefs. These are simply the ways by which one group of humans exercise power over other groups of humans.
The power to rule over others. At first this would seem to be a tendency we have inherited from our long evolutionary experience in the animal kingdom. Survival by the strongest and fittest. And that might well be correct for the animals. But humans have a potential for something much greater; something deep within that cries out to be expressed. And it is the full expression of that inner greatness that should not be denied. Least of all by self-anointed leaders and despots.
It was this illumined recognition on the part of an awake group of human beings that came together in 1948 to proclaim The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And three years earlier, an equally illumined group came together in San Francisco and founded the United Nations.
The Declaration of Human Rights has thirty Articles. Article 1 of the Declaration recognises that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” And in Article 2 those rights are set forth “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” This Declaration is a bold, enlightened statement that smashes all the false barriers erected in the past and recognises that we are one family, a brotherhood, and that we all should have an equal opportunity to become a fully developed human being. And no force on earth, human or natural, should impede that right.
As we know a human being is more than just a physical body; more than this outer personality nature. What makes us truly human lies within – the persistent power of the soul. The fiery energy of the soul provides the power to constantly and continually refine its lower personality expression in the physical world. We will not be fully human until we have reached the objective of a refined synchronicity in vibration with that of the soul. Only then will we reach the stage where we can be a refined point of anchorage for the life energies of Divinity to radiate into the world. Only then will we reach our ultimate objective of being a fully developed, fully refined, human being; only then can we prepare a radiant vehicle through which pure Being can walk in the world.
This is an extremely long-ranged objective, and one not achievable in one lifetime. But the more that the barriers created by human attitudes drop away, the more rapid we will move towards our human responsibility and objective, which is essentially to live and work in the great service of Divine Purpose. This Purpose is working out on this planet, and the human kingdom holds a pivotal place in the whole evolutionary process. There are three kingdoms below the human stage and three kingdoms above. We stand at the midway point, the mediating point. And now humanity is actively engaged – whether we know it or not – in the redemptive process. Everything we do – whether consciously or not – is being impressed to conform to the Divine pattern.
Which brings us back to the issue of our right to be a fully developed human being. Back in the dark night of time (actually even before time) pure Spirit – in its highest, refined, vibrational state, and powered by Divine Will – began its merger with coarser, unredeemed solar substance. This union with denser matter resulted in a middle stage which we now refer to as the divine soul. It is this initial intention of pure Spirit that gives us – no, demands of us – the right to be a fully developed human being. The right to be human was first granted by Spirit itself. If we shirk or impede this duty, then we are not living up to our human responsibility. And if our right to be human is impeded or denied, by whatever means or forces, then we will not be allowed to fulfil our destined duty, our dharma, in the redemptive refining process.
It is intended that this planet will eventually become a radiating center of Divine Light and Love in this solar system. Only by us being allowed to become a fully developed human soul will this ideal be accomplished. And, for the first time in human history, the Declaration of Human Rights sounds the note of our destined path to be fully human.

Reflections like these, on the spiritual implications of the Universal Declaration, give us some inkling of its true long-term significance. Yet at the same time, we are naturally impatient creatures, and are eager to see the Declaration implemented now, in full, everywhere. And when it so patently is not, we may be dismayed, and may even succumb to despair. As Kimberley Riley asks, at the beginning of her presentation The Dignity and Rights of Man: A History of the Democratic Ideal: “How are we to find encouragement for human progress, when the historical and contemporary records often seem so bleak? Can we see any actual progress in human consciousness, or rather is it true, as the old French proverb suggests, that: ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same?’ (‘Plus ca change; plus c’est la même chose.’)”

She continues by asking, “How can the study of history in general, or the study of the history of democracy and human rights help us to gain inspiration for the collective progress of humanity? What thoughts might we develop on our own and share with others as a source of support…? What language might we invent for this collective strengthening?”

She then brings in the direct relevance of this question to contemporary democracies by reflecting on the pros and cons of a critical public opinion:

We who live in the world’s democracies have learned the power of public criticism to unmask abuse; many of the political, social and cultural advances of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are rooted in a free people’s ability to publicly critique the status quo.
And yet, as the history of the short-lived German Weimar Republic (1918-1933) shows, relentless, virulent critique from both ends of the political spectrum weakens the spirit of democracy, a spirit that can only thrive in an atmosphere of tolerance and compromise. By destroying the very relationships that are a thriving polity’s engine, excessive critique exhausts the collective will to good. Democracy and human rights rely in part upon vigilance; they also rest upon an ability to perceive and foster the good that already exists in the human family.
Yet what we are good at is criticism; we are quick to perceive failure. We are much less skilled in the art of collective strengthening. Therefore, I want to try to use the historical record, particularly the record relating to democracy and human rights, to suggest some direction for that process.

She sets out the case that we tend to have too short-term a perspective on the evolution of consciousness:

Because democracy is as much a series of habits and states of mind as it is an organizational system, group progress rests on the simultaneous personal moral development of countless individuals. While the individual may chart his or her own progress in years or decades, group development must necessarily be counted in much longer spans of time. Fifty or hundred years should not seem excessively long to produce new habits, new ideas, and new emotional attachments in populations of people counted in the millions. The individual sees only a fraction and that fraction may cause joy or despair depending on one’s place in history. To perceive group progress, however, we must expand our normal perception of time well beyond the scope of our individual lives.
We may also have to alter our view of the mechanism of historical movement and momentum. Historians and the public at large have traditionally associated the history of democracy and human rights with the revolutions of 1688, 1775 and 1789, all seemingly abrupt breaks with the traditional past. Most revolutionaries have also felt this sense of isolation from their historical fellows, a loneliness that springs from acting in ways that seem entirely new. Needing to strengthen themselves and justify their actions, champions of democracy often have spoken of the entire past prior to their efforts as corrupt, decayed, and bankrupt. To revolutionary founders and to many of us today, there is no relationship possible between democracy and the rest of the human past, or between democratic nations and the rest of the world.
Yet this common view gives a distorted impression of actual change over time, and leaves democratic institutions seemingly standing alone, against a hostile humanity who often seems to prefer tyranny and abuse to human rights and freedom. Yet perhaps there is more relationship between past and present than is commonly supposed. Rather than abruptly breaking with the past, democratic institutions enfold the achievements of other groups into their own structure of ideas. Instead of seeing the past as divided into times of progress and times of tyranny, perhaps we should understand historical development as a kind of continuous conversation, an ongoing search to perceive, define and express the principles of right and effective human relationships, a process that most people in most periods of time are in fact striving to do well.

She supports the latter assertion by examining the evolution of legal systems, from the time of the Babylonian emperor Hammurabi (1760 BC) to the Magna Carta (1215 AD). She notes that, while Hammurabi’s edicts include elements that we would today consider barbarous, “they do contain two basic principles that will eventually be the basis of every democratic constitution and every bill of rights: namely that the same laws apply everywhere and they must be publicly known.” Tracing the connection with the Magna Carta, she notes that “Human social organization and philosophical thought, much like human science and technology, builds on the past, incorporating old ideas and adding innovations in increments.” Within the Magna Carta, there is the same emphasis on its laws being applied equally everywhere. However, there are also steps forward:

The Magna Carta also offers significant new initiatives in which we can clearly recognize the beginnings of democratic ideals and practice. Courts of law are to be established in fixed locations, only trustworthy tax collectors, judges, sheriffs or bailiffs are to be appointed and their prerogatives to confiscate property, commonly accepted before this time (and long after by custom) are curtailed by law. Imprisonment without proof of cause is abolished, the monarch is forced to accept that his will is bound by law and that, most significantly, in article “61” that a convocation of his highest barons could overrule his actions if they violated the charter’s provisions. Twice it is stated that the English church is free from the monarch’s control. While the charter may not have changed the life of the average thirteenth century peasant significantly, or granted individual liberty in any way that we moderns could understand, it did set precedents for legality and limitations on executive power, limited taxation, freedom of religion, and equality before the law that would be extended and elaborated upon in subsequent constitutions and bills of rights in countries all over the world.

She continues:

There is power in thinking of our democratic and human rights ideals as firmly rooted in this way. If we can see connections between our current values and institutions and those of the past, we can then conceive of ourselves as working with a powerful flow of historical energy, rather than holding our fingers in a cracking dyke that can barely hold back the tides of human tyranny and aggression. We can imagine that other cultures, perhaps more like Hammurabi’s state than our own, are in fact not so entirely and hopelessly different; we can look for and find connections and can imagine that growth and development towards the ideals set forth in democratic constitutions and bills of rights are not aberrations in the human story, but are in fact a natural part of the human thought process regarding relations between fellow human beings. Then when we ourselves or those around us fail to live up to our ideals, we can find faith in the fact that the body politic, just like the physical body, has deep wells of healing power to turn a course of sickness to back to health.

In conclusion, she notes:

This paper is not intended to recommend an optimistic approach to human history. Optimism seems too breezy, too light an attitude to take towards the enormity of the human record. Simple optimism too easily forgets the suffering of our fellows who had to stand in the dark places, during spans of time marked by war, famine and human cruelty. Optimism offers little solace for those forced into slavery when Athens fell to Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War, or during the long centuries of the Roman Empire, or when European colonists landed in Africa nearly two thousand years later, or for those who watched their children slowly starve with no organized relief during the Thirty years war, or the Irish potato famine, or any of the other numerous “hungry times” in human history, or for those who were slaughtered at the Battle of the Somme over yards of soil, or for those who were murdered at Auschwitz. These sufferings deserve to be recorded, pondered upon and honored, not brushed away as preludes to better times.
Rather I would ask that we use our study of history to invoke the power of past right action, to find a way to stand with less fear and more love of humanity, to develop an intelligent understanding of the actual task of human group development and a language that supports the evolution of human consciousness. Even the very brief histories of democracy given this afternoon show us that human progress is never linear.
The record shows that human beings voice ideals long before they have the tools to put them into practice. We must learn to know this fact and understand its implications. We must come to expect setbacks and failures, even anticipate them. Then, when the group fails, as it inevitably will fail, when we read of practices of torture occurring in societies whose own founding documents decry such acts, when we discover that large numbers of people in all parts of the world still respect only power crudely wielded, when we find out that we and our fellows are not yet perfect and are unlikely to achieve perfection in our own lifetimes, we do not sit down in despair, but rather rise up, ready to act out of the ancient human determination to set the wrong right, confident that our present actions will bear future fruit.

One of the potential difficulties with the advance of a rights-based approach to human development is that it may be more suited to some cultures than to others. Thus, it has been pointed out by a distinguished body of elder statesmen, the Interaction Council, that, along with Human Rights, we should also consider human responsibilities, and that both are needed to form a complete picture of human ethical behaviour.1 They make the interesting point that, while the West is comfortable with a rights-based description of how individuals should relate to one another within society, in the East, there is often more emphasis on the notion of the responsibilities that the individual owes to others and to society at large. We could say that, while the West comes down firmly on the side of the freedom of the individual, in the East there may be a tendency to come down on the side of the smooth functioning of society.

A significant example of this cultural difference is China. During the recent Olympics, the Chinese authorities set aside official protest zones in Beijing where those wishing to protest against one or another aspect of either the Olympics or other issues could gather. To be allowed to go to those areas, a form had to be submitted to the authorities. The New York Times reported that, five days into the Olympics, not one protest had actually taken place, and gave examples of people who had submitted forms who were subsequently taken into detention. While those living in a Western democracy might see this as a fragrant violation of human rights, it might be worth trying to see the incident from the perspective of the Chinese authorities. Having placed their country, and particularly Beijing, at the epicentre of world attention, they presumably wanted to ensure that the images that flowed out of Beijing were as positive and harmonious as they could be – and multiple protests certainly would not fit that prescription. They might even feel that it was the duty of all Chinese citizens to help them in this endeavour. This is not to condone the Chinese action, or judge the legitimacy or otherwise of the protestors. It is simply to illustrate a different mind-set, that locates the balance between social harmony and individual freedom in a quite different place than does a Western democracy.

Reflecting on the subject of responsibilities, at the London meeting, Julia Häusermann suggested that these responsibilities are owed principally to humanity as a whole. She notes that her organisation, Rights and Humanity, “recognized that we have certain responsibilities which we share across our faiths and cultures. We have the responsibility to respect our common humanity. We have the responsibility to respect human dignity. We have the responsibility to revere life in all its forms… We have the responsibility to respect and protect the human rights of everyone everywhere. We have the responsibility to think and behave with compassion, to act with integrity, and to make peace so that we can all live in unity.”

Discussing how one can balance rights with responsibilities, she gives the following example:

…a slum area in Mozambique called Mafalala that I visited when I was doing some work for UNICEF in 2004. UNICEF has introduced a human rights approach to its work, and they were looking at how to protect the people living in this slum area from the risk of disease through teaching them about the right to health and the right to water and the right to sanitation. And I think they made a great deal of progress and there was a lot that was being done in that community. But what I found fascinating is that when I started asking more deep questions and saying: do you understand what your own responsibilities are here? The people who were participating in our focus group said: Oh yes, we understand that the government has the obligation to supply the water, but we have an obligation to build the latrine. They have an obligation to collect the rubbish, but we have an obligation to take it outside the slum, because the trucks that collect the rubbish can't get in because the lanes are so narrow. So we have an obligation to take the rubbish to the outside. Now that, for me, is a balance of rights and responsibilities, where people are working together to make the best possible outcome.

Returning to the situation in Britain, she notes:

…we might find we are a little bit out of balance in our rights and responsibilities at the moment. And I think that… the whole problem is about the war on terror – the so-called war on terror – because I think this security issue has been allowed to infiltrate the whole edifice of life in Britain, so that our rights are being reduced in the face of perceived security needs. I read a rather alarming article recently where it said that security issues were actually leading the police to police by ethnicity and religion rather than to police by any other evidence. So the presumption that somebody might be involved is very worrying. That goes way, way, way away from the fundamental essence of human rights that we've had in this country protected for so, so long.
So what can we do about it? Well I think we have to be vigilant. So, to be an active citizen I think we have a duty to defend human rights in Britain. I think we have a duty to use our democratic voice to air our concerns. If we then expand that to the global agenda, we are of course also global citizens. And in the times of global threats – climate change, outrages of poverty, HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB, all of these issues – our duties obviously are clear, that we have to use our democratic voice, the rights that we have been given and that people over the centuries have fought so hard to secure for us, we have to be able to use that voice to stand up for human rights all over the world. And I think that is part of our responsibility, that we really have to be engaged as much as we can. Many people are doing many things. We have changed our purchasing habits, buying ‘Fair Trade’, renewable processes, wherever we can. But we have to, I think, really keep ourselves informed. And I was feeling a great sense of mea culpa which I was expressing over lunch today, not knowing what was going on in the Congo until I read an article in The Independent yesterday. And it was complaining that the consumer society and in particular the use of mobile phones was fuelling the conflicts and wars that are going on in the Congo which is the main supplier of Coltan – one of the minerals that's used in the mobile phone industry. Now, I didn't know about that. So I think our responsibilities are not just to act on the things we do know about, but also to keep ourselves informed. And there are of course lots of websites to do that.

In the final remarks from New York and London, this need for taking responsibility for the common good is also echoed. The New Group of World Servers are identified as the group who are helping humanity to recognise this sense of responsibility.

In conclusion, in a time of world crisis such as this, when the old and familiar ways have been called into question and found lacking, yet when little clarity has emerged to light the way, group meditation can be a powerful form of service.2 The fundamental ideas on which a new and better world for all must be based can be clarified and empowered through the power of meditation, making them recognisable to people of goodwill all over the world. Group meditation can help to stimulate the growth of public opinion, and augment the efforts of those servers who have thought their way through to a new level of understanding, helping them to hold their wisdom as a vision before the eyes of all people.

N.B. Printed copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are available from World Goodwill. Also, a Commentary on this theme is in preparation and should be available soon.

1. For copies of the Interaction Council’s A Declaration of Human Responsibilities, please contact us.

2. The meditation Strengthening the Hands of the New Group of World Servers, is available here.

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