Human Rights and the American Tradition

Courtesy Reuters

Nothing the Carter Administration has done has excited more hope, puzzlement and confusion than the effort to make human rights a primary theme in the international relations of the United States. Observers, watching the human rights initiative stumble from one contradiction to another, have announced its demise at regular intervals. Yet the campaign has plainly touched exposed nerves around the planet; it reverberates from Moscow, Santiago and Kampala to Peking; and, after two uncertain years, it remains a vital if problematic strain in American foreign policy. It therefore seems appropriate to attempt an interim assessment of the human rights initiative: its origins, its ambiguities, its achievements, its perils, its prospects.


Human rights -- roughly the idea that all individuals everywhere are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on this earth -- is a relatively modern proposition. Political orators like to trace this idea to religious sources, especially to the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights in the contemporary sense -- not only for their acquiescence in poverty, inequality and oppression, but for their addiction to slavery, torture, wartime atrocities and genocide.

Christianity, for example, assigned to earthly misery an honored and indispensable role in the drama of salvation. The trials visited on mankind in this world were conceived as ordained by the Almighty in order to test and train sinful mortals. From the religious perspective, nothing that might take place on earth mattered in comparison to what must take place hereafter. The world was but an inn at which humans spent a night on their voyage to eternity, so what difference could it make if the food was poor or the bed uncomfortable?

No doubt the idea of natural rights has classical antecedents, among, for example, the Stoics. But humanitarianism -- the notion that natural rights have immediate, concrete and universal application - -- is a product of the last four centuries. Tocqueville persuasively attributed the

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