United Nations Headquarters in New York City


Holy See at UN: What Is a Human Right Anyway?

Archbishop calls for both correct understanding of the foundation of rights and the meaning of the term

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The Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations addressed this week the High Level Thematic Debate on Human Rights.

Archbishop Bernardino Auza affirmed in the address that in order for talk of human rights to be effective and useful, there must be an understanding of where human rights come from in the first place.

Moreover, the archbishop reminded, «the term ‘human right’ must be strictly and prudently applied, lest it become a rhetorical catch-all, endlessly expanded to suit the passing tastes of the age.»

Here is the full text of his address:


New York, 12-13 July 2016

Mr. President,
Since its inception, the United Nations has had a unique role in protecting and promoting human rights throughout the world. As we reflect on the significance of the Seventieth Anniversary of the United Nations and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the international human rights covenants, it is appropriate to note and celebrate how much the United Nations has done to codify and develop international law and to establish international human rights norms.
The ideals enshrined in the Charter and set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are a powerful and perennial reminder of our common humanity and of the human solidarity that flows from it. Today more than ever, they represent a shared patrimony that demands universal respect and observance. Wherever it exists, respect for human dignity and human rights is a moral achievement that must continually be received with gratitude, solidified with perseverance and built upon in the concrete decisions that persons, societies and States make.
Mr. President,
This debate comes at a particularly tumultuous time in which human dignity and rights are being denied, suppressed and violated in various ways across the globe: civilians are being targeted in war and armed conflict; persons are being trafficked for slave labor, sex, or organs; ethnic and religious minorities are being singled out for persecution and annihilation; human beings deemed unwanted or useless are being discarded in what Pope Francis has termed the “throwaway culture”; hundreds of millions of peoples risk their lives to flee from persecution and extreme poverty; countless individuals are victims of various forms of discrimination.
The fact that so many are being left behind or disadvantaged because of a failure to appreciate their dignity and rights makes this discussion today all the more important and the actions that must follow it ever more urgent.
In order to foster respect for human dignity and rights, it is essential to understand their source and foundation. While it is a great sign of ethical progress that today almost everyone speaks about human rights and dignity, many do so without acknowledging where human dignity and rights come from. Human dignity, from which human rights flow, is an expression of the intrinsic worth of every person no matter what race or sex, no matter how young or old, strong or vulnerable, healthy or handicapped, wanted or unwelcomed, economically productive or incapacitated, influential or insignificant.
Human dignity is inherent to every human being and to every human life, from the first moment of conception. It is not something that we acquire when we reach a certain physical dimension, mental ability or age, nor is it some kind of “privilege” that can be conceded or taken away by the State, as a matter of policy. Rather, it is intrinsic to every human being, and being antecedent to the demands of the State, ought to be always recognized and protected by the State.
In recent years, numerous assertions of “novel rights” have surfaced that significantly stray from the vision of the human person, on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the other conventions that form international human rights law, are grounded. Genuine human rights are inalienable and must be universally respected and advanced. In consequence, however, the term “human right” must be strictly and prudently applied, lest it become a rhetorical catch-all, endlessly expanded to suit the passing tastes of the age. Such an elastic approach would discredit and undermine the very concept of human rights. A responsible exercise of human rights necessarily implies a faithful fulfilment of their corresponding responsibilities. This reciprocity of rights and responsibilities does not only apply at the level of individuals, but it also informs the relationship of civil, legislative and judicial authorities with citizens and civil society institutions and groups.
Mr. President,
Over the last seventy years, the international human rights architecture has grown substantially, and with it, the work of the United Nations in upholding and protecting the human rights and dignity of all, especially the weakest and most vulnerable. This deserves to be celebrated.
As we celebrate, we must also be aware that there is still much to be done, since violations of fundamental and inalienable human rights and widespread discriminations are crying out for immediate relief and resolution, even as we speak.
Reviewing with satisfaction the progress that has been made, we must continue to foster and consolidate a culture of respect for human rights and create the conditions for future generations to receive, protect, cherish and promote them.
Thank you, Mr. President.

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Kathleen Naab

United States

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