Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Y symposium: human rights are a society's foundation

By Sara Israelsen-Hartley - Deseret News

PROVO — For much of the Western world, government-protected human rights are a given. But Martin Palous, Czech ambassador to the United Nations, explained recently at BYU/UVU co-sponsored symposium on God and Human Rights, that in Czechoslovakia in 1976, people weren't so lucky.

It took a bold declaration from a group of committed citizens to peacefully demand that the government protect people's rights.

"Responsibility for the observance of civil rights in the country naturally falls, in the first place, on the political and state power. But not on it alone," according to the English version of Charter 77, the bold declaration Palous himself signed. "Each and every one of us has a share of responsibility for the general situation and thus, too, for the observance of the pacts which have been enacted and are binding not only for the government but for all citizens."

Palous shared how Charter 77 helped usher in a democratic government now active in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

"Respect for human rights is the moral foundation of all human societies and no society can function without such a foundation," Palous said, quoting heavily from the work of Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, one of the three spokesmen named in Charter 77.

In fact, respecting human rights and freedom creates the strongest societies, explained symposium speaker David Walsh, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America.

History has shown, Walsh explained, that free states are stronger than those that must rely on forced power to keep their citizens in check.

But if liberty, especially personal liberty, is so important, why is it often an afterthought in politics, Walsh questioned, pointing out that even the United States' Bill of Rights was an amendment to the Constitution.

It boils down to semantics, he said, and our inability to fully transfer our inner thoughts into a publically accessible language.

"Language deals with general concepts," he said, "whereas persons are each unique irreplaceable and whole worlds unto themselves."

Even our names fall short of truly defining us, they simply move us beyond common nouns, he said.

"Somehow the very things that we're most concerned about, most intent on preserving and protecting seem to escape our identification," he said.

Yet we continue to talk with each other, as that helps us solidify more and more of what we think, he said, and helps us realize the intrinsic value of each person as an individual.

"There's no point at which the social good outweighs the individual good of each one of us," he said. "There are many social problems we could address if we were prepared to sacrifice individuals along the way and social goods that could be achieved if we regarded individuals as expendable. But we consider those social goods are not worth having, being bought at the price of making individuals merely disposable, superfluous entities within the process."


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