A central tenet of the humanist philosophy is respect for individual autonomy and human rights. This principle was codified by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, when it adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document is premised on the inherent dignity and equal rights of all members of the human family, and explicitly recognizes the rights to:
- Life, liberty and security of person
- Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- Freedom from slavery or servitude
- Freedom from torture, or inhuman or degrading punishment
- Freedom of opinion and expression
- Peacefully assemble and associate
- Participate in government, directly or through freely chosen representatives
- Free, public education (at the elementary and fundamental stages)
Clearly, all of these rights are consistent with the humanist philosophy. Despite this declaration having been in effect for more than 50 years, abuses of all of these rights continue in many parts of the world — some overt, some subtle.
From the explicit rights listed in the Universal Declaration we can further extrapolate a number of other rights, many of which remain contentious even in countries where basic human rights are respected. Thus, a more expansive list might also include reproductive freedom and access to birth control, humane and rational attitudes toward abortion, gender equality, civil liberties, rights to privacy, and consensual sexual relationships between adults. Less clear applications may deal with capital punishment, euthanasia, and assisted suicide.
One aspect of human rights warrants special consideration by humanists: the status of women. Ensuring the rights of women (including the provision of education and control over their reproductive decisions) has been cited as the single most effective means of improving conditions within a society. Indeed, in those nations where women are relegated to lesser status than men, it is not unusual to find other human rights abuses practiced.
In 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This Convention defines discrimination against women as “… any distinction, exclusion, or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”
This document has entered into force as an international treaty and has been ratified by some 170 nations. Sadly, 20 nations or countries have not yet ratified CEDAW, including (most notably) the United States of America. Others who have not ratified CEDAW include Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia.
The role that a humanist may play in furthering the cause of human rights will depend upon one’s particular circumstances. In places such as the United States, humanist activists could urge public support for ratification of CEDAW or foreign policy that furthers the cause of human rights. In areas directly affected by human rights violations, humanists may develop programs to assist those in need, or seek to expose violations to public or international scrutiny. In virtually every society, there is a role for humanists to protect civil liberties, support free public education, and continually advocate for the universal application of these essential human rights.