Throwback Thursday: An Indepth Analysis of the Hijacking of Human Rights
Over the summer, ARPA Canada will be re-posting an old blog or article each Thursday. We hope that you enjoy these blasts from the past as we re-live some of the major content, issues, and campaigns of ARPA’s past 15 years.
This article, originally published in 2010, was one of one the first in-depth issue analyses that ARPA produced. Eventually, these analyses matured from simply long articles to fully-fledged Respectfully Submitted policy reports. Today, ARPA has seventeen different policy reports.
Properly understood, human rights are a good thing. Historically, human rights protected people from governments. That is, rights put limits on government power. In recent years, however, rights have become transformed into a tool for those attempting to extend the power of government over the people.
Modern “human rights” are being used to violate genuine historic rights like the right to free speech. “Human rights commissions” are often in the forefront of this effort to expand the state at the expense of common citizens.
What Are “Rights”?
A “right” can be defined as “a legitimate claim that one person can make against others” (Waldron 1993, 576). Nevertheless, there are different theories and conceptions of rights, some of them incompatible with others. Among human rights theorists, conceptions of rights are divided into three “generations”:
- First-generation rights are the traditional liberties and privileges of citizenship:
- religious toleration, freedom from arbitrary arrest, free speech, the right to vote,
- and so on. Second-generation rights are socio-economic claims: the right to
- education, housing, health care, employment, and an adequate standard of
- living. . . . Third-generation rights, by contrast, have to do with communities or
- whole peoples, rather than individual persons. They include minority language
- rights, national rights to self-determination and the right to such diffuse goods as
- peace, environmental integrity and economic development (Waldron 1993, 578).
First-generation rights are the traditional rights historically associated with the developed English-speaking countries. They are generally considered to be “negative” rights in the sense that governments are prohibited from doing things that impinge on an individual’s life. Second- and third-generation rights are considered to be “positive” rights in the sense that they require government action rather than inaction. As John Warwick Montgomery puts it,
- The object of “first-generation” rights is primarily to restrain government from
- encroaching on the liberties of the subject. In contrast, “second-generation” rights
- (economic and social rights) require positive government action and seem to
- identify rights with needs (Montgomery 1995, 69).
Conservative and libertarian thinkers often disagree that what are called second- and third-generation rights are, in fact, rights. These kinds of critics see those rights as involving “a degradation of the currency of rights, a hijacking of the concept by ideologues who are very little concerned with its liberal provenance” (Waldron 1993, 578). The word “liberal” in this context basically refers to the Western tradition of limited government.
When it comes to “negative” rights, it’s easy to see that there is an obligation on people and governments to refrain from impinging on someone’s entitlement. Person A has a right to life, so no one should kill him. He has a right to his property, so no one should steal from him, etc. But if it is said he has a right to health care, or a right to an education, then who is obliged by this right to ensure he receives what is his due? It is assumed his government has the obligation to provide for these rights.
Many governments, however, cannot afford to provide health care and education for all of their citizens, so how can people in those kinds of countries be said to have rights to health care and education? And in countries like Canada that do provide health care and education for their citizens, how much of both is necessary to fulfill the rights of all citizens? And how would we know how much is enough? Does every citizen have a right to government-provided university education? Or just to secondary education? And how do we know?
Recognizing that things like health care and education are very important isn’t the same as declaring that all people have “rights” to them. There’s no “right” to have all of one’s needs provided for by others. But it seems that when people try to stretch the idea of rights beyond first-generation rights, they may just be identifying the term “rights” with “needs” or “wants.” This certainly cheapens the term “rights” and makes it to express a concept that it wasn’t originally intended for.
Early Rights Theorist John Locke
The idea of human rights, which Canadians take for granted, has really only been around for less than four hundred years. As University of Toronto political scientist Thomas Pangle puts it,
- the idea of rights—meaning to say human rights, natural rights, the “rights of
- man,” rights understood to belong to all human beings as individuals, and
- understood to constitute the moral foundation of legitimate political authority—
- becomes a clear theme only in the mid seventeenth century in northern Europe,
- and especially in England (Pangle 1992, 93).
One of the best known political philosophers of that period, and one that is widely recognized for his theory of rights, is the English philosopher John Locke. Locke is a key thinker in the early formation of rights theory. And it’s important to note that Locke provided a Christian theological basis for rights in his thought. American scholar, Jeremy Waldron, mentions this when discussing theoretical justifications for rights.
- Though people differ in their virtues and abilities, the idea of rights attaches an
- unconditional worth to the existence of each person, irrespective of her
- particular value to others. Traditionally, this was given a theological
- interpretation: since God has invested His creative love in each of us, it behooves
- us to treat all others in a way that reflects that status (Waldron 1993, 582).
With this comment Waldron cites Locke as an example of the early theorists who provided a Christian basis for rights. And it is good to see what Locke himself says about the foundation for rights:
- For Men being all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise
- Maker; All the Servants of our Sovereign Master, sent into the World by his order
- and about his business, they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are, made
- to last during his, not one anothers Pleasure. And being furnished with like
- Faculties, sharing all in one Community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any
- such Subordination among us, that may Authorize us to destroy one another, as if
- we were made for one anothers uses, as the inferior ranks of Creatures are for ours
- (Locke  1988, 271).
Every individual is the property of God, and therefore no one has the authority to abuse another individual. It is each person’s status as a creature made by God that is the foundation of rights. As Waldron pointed out above, this has “traditionally” been the basis of the view that each person has worth and is therefore invested with certain rights.
Locke’s political theory states that each person has natural rights, and that people come together to form civil governments in order to protect those rights. That is, the central purpose of government is to protect individual rights. Without a government people would live in a “state of nature” where they are unsafe and insecure. So although they technically have natural rights in such a situation, they constantly face danger. In order to escape the danger, people join together to form a society with a civil government. That is, as Locke puts it, they “unite for the mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I call by the general Name, Property” (Locke  1988, 350).
Keeping in mind, then, that Locke uses the word “property” in this case to encompass life, liberty, and property (“property” in the narrow, modern sense), he states the following: “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property” (Locke  1988, 350-351).
If a government is constituted for the main purpose of preserving people’s natural rights, then that has significant implications for what the government can legitimately do. It cannot take away the life, liberty or property of any citizen without just cause. “It is a Power, that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the Subjects” (Locke  1988, 357). The government cannot “destroy” a citizen, that is, take away his life; it cannot “enslave” a citizen, that is, take away his liberty; and it cannot “impoverish” a citizen, that is, take away his property.
John Locke has been one of the most influential political philosophers of all time. He was especially influential in the founding of the United States. As John Warwick Montgomery has written, “John Locke’s contract theory, philosophy of limited government, and affirmation of inalienable rights were the most immediate ideological influences on the founding documents of American constitutionalism” (Montgomery 1995, 170). This is a widely accepted idea.
Because Locke was also very influential in Britain, and Canada and its political system descended directly from Britain, Locke has had a significant impact on this country as well. However, it is possible to see an even more direct connection between Locke and Canada. McMaster University political scientist Janet Ajzenstat has recently written a book where she argues that Canada’s founders “were John Locke’s disciples” (Ajzenstat 2007, xvi).
The various British colonies in North America that would join together to form Canada each had their own legislative assembly. The members of these assemblies had to debate and decide whether or not to join the Canadian political union. According to Ajzenstat, the topic of rights was discussed in these debates. Referring to Canada’s Founding Fathers she states that “most or all believed that security for the individual—the right to life, liberty, and property, to use Locke’s phrase—is Parliament’s original and primary purpose” (Ajzenstat 2007, 50).
The particular term “human rights” was not in circulation at that time, but the idea of rights was an important issue.
The Fathers and ratifying legislators did not often speak of “human rights” in the abstract. They referred to British rights, the rights secured by the American Constitution, the rights of Englishmen, the “dearest rights of Nova Scotians,” and so on (Ajzenstat 2007, 51).
Despite the fact that the terminology identifies rights with particular countries or colonies, it was believed that rights were universal, that is, that they applied to all people.
- The seventeenth-century philosophers—men like John Locke—were well aware
- that throughout history men and women have been deprived, abused, and
- enslaved. But they continued to insist on the universality of rights. And their
- insistence—their pious assertion, if you like—transformed modern politics. We
- can indeed say that the Canadian founders were thinking of human rights
- (Ajzenstat 2007, 52).
It is important to understand the original conception of human rights as it existed in the English-speaking world in general and Canada in particular, because the idea of human rights would subsequently evolve and become severely distorted. The earlier conception was strongly compatible with Christianity, and was in fact based to a large degree on Christian theological foundations. But modern ideas of human rights have largely abandoned the Christian foundation.
Human Rights in Transition
The Second World War had a profound impact on the direction of human rights theory. It illustrated in dramatic fashion the evil consequences of racism. People were understandably horrified by the Holocaust that resulted from the ideology of Nazism. The awareness that racial discrimination can lead to unspeakable horrors created a widespread willingness to support efforts to eliminate discrimination. This desire to oppose discrimination is called “equality rights consciousness.”
Before the War, Canada’s classical liberal culture placed a high value on individual rights and freedoms. Despite this, Canadian society generally permitted discrimination against minorities, especially Jewish people and non-whites. But the liberal conception of rights provided a strong basis for the development of anti-discrimination views.
- [I]n Canada’s early political culture the soil did exist for equality rights
- consciousness to take root. And in the 1940s that soil proved to be productive. In
- a rights-oriented political culture, the experience of the Second World War
- stimulated the growth of equality rights consciousness. By focusing attention on
- the evils of racism and discrimination, the importance of human dignity, and the
- importance of human rights—including the right to be free from discrimination—
- the wartime experience brought out what was latent in the political culture (Howe
- and Johnson 2000, 27).
So because of the War, human rights theory was pushed in a particular direction, namely, opposing discrimination.
Along with this was influence from the American civil rights movement. By the 1960s African-Americans had mobilized to remove the discriminatory laws and practices that had held them back from full participation in American society.
- The American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the women’s
- movement of the 1960s and 1970s were sources of inspiration for many social
- activists and human rights groups in Canada. Many American developments in
- human rights law were quickly replicated in Canada after a period of interest
- group pressure (Howe and Johnson 2000, 27).
The War and the subsequent civil rights movement in the United States were major influences upon the development of human rights theory in Canada.
The growth of equality rights consciousness in the wake of World War Two and then the American civil rights movement created an atmosphere within which human rights commissions were established in Canada (more information about these commissions is available later in this article). Subsequently, the commissions worked to expand and promote the further development of equality rights consciousness and human rights legislation. This generated additional support for the modern conception of human rights among the general population.
- [T]he educational programs of commissions and the very existence of the
- legislation and the complaint procedures served to encourage a further growth of
- equality rights consciousness and societal pressures for stronger legislation. By
- providing education about rights, and by publicizing the existence of a system of
- rights protection, human rights programs and institutions politicized Canadian
- society in the direction of making demands for wider rights. Rights consciousness
- and awareness of human rights commissions encouraged more and more groups
- to pressure for more and more rights (Howe and Johnson 2000, 35).
The homosexual rights movement began to develop by the late 1960s. It has succeeded in portraying homosexuals as a minority suffering from discrimination. Just as African-Americans demanded equal rights with other Americans, the homosexual rights activists demand what they consider to be equal rights with heterosexuals. This is advanced as being protected from discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation.”
Modern human rights theory conceives of a particular “model” of society and the relationship between the majority population and minorities.
- As applied to sexuality, the model represents society as having always contained a
- majority of heterosexuals and a minority of homosexuals. Often, this is made
- explicit through reliance on the concept of immutability—that sexual orientation
- is fixed genetically or in early childhood, and is only waiting to be discovered.
- There have always been and will always be those who sexually prefer their own
- sex. This preference, occurring without any conscious agency on the part of the
- individual, should not, liberal argument goes, be a basis for discrimination
- (Herman 1994, 38).
In this view, because sexual orientation cannot be changed, like race and ethnic origin, it should be a protected ground under human rights law.
One can see how the early conception of liberal individual rights—to life, liberty, and property—evolved into a concern about racial discrimination due to World War Two, and subsequently continued to evolve into advocating protections for non-racial minorities, like homosexuals. Unfortunately, as it evolved in this way, it often lost its concern for the earlier rights. Human rights theory was moving away from its original foundations and was morphing into something different.
Human Rights and the Bible
There is a way in which biblical Christianity can be said to support human rights, but it is a very different conception of rights than that currently promoted in Western countries. This Christian perspective is outlined by T. Robert Ingram in his book What’s Wrong With Human Rights. As Ingram sees it, the Ten Commandments are the moral foundation for the civil government. All law must be in conformity to the Ten Commandments. Some of the Commandments involve protecting people from other people, and in this sense a form of “human rights” is established.
The Sixth Commandment forbids murder. An innocent person cannot be killed, not because he has an inherent right to life, but because God’s law forbids such killing. “Wrongs are not seen as infringements of individual rights, but violations of God’s commands. It is wrong to murder, not because each has a right to live but because God said it is wrong for any person to kill a man except as a public official acting in the administration of justice or the conduct of war” (Ingram 1978, 21). In this respect a kind of “right to life” is established by the Sixth Commandment.
In a similar sense, the Eighth Commandment establishes a right to private property. Since one person (or even the government) cannot steal the property of another, the owner of the property is safely protected in his ownership by God’s law.
- Under the law, then, a man has a ‘right’ to his life, his limbs, his liberty and his
- property simply because it is wrong to take them from him except in just punishment
- for breaking that same law. The law is a closed circle, a complete fence. Within it
- men are free and have innumerable ‘rights’ if one wants to think of them that way.
- But these rights appear from the wrongs specified by [God’s] law (Ingram 1978, 54).
The Ten Commandments form the moral foundation of a Christian legal and political system. The citizens living under such a system are protected from harm by the stipulations of God’s law. As such they have the rights to life, liberty and property. These can be referred to as “human rights,” but they are based on a very different foundation than the “human rights” commonly promoted today. Under this Christian system the idea of abortion rights or homosexual rights would obviously be absurd.
Properly understood, then, “human rights” can be compatible with biblical Christianity. The Ten Commandments provide a much better Charter of Rights than anything that can be devised by man.
Rights or Privileges?
Governments will at times create entitlements for their citizens to certain benefits. It is not unusual for people to refer to these entitlements as “rights,” such as the right to education or the right to health care. However, from a Christian perspective, only God can grant rights, so these other kinds of rights are more properly called “privileges.”
- Citizenship rights, being politically created, will vary from country to country.
- They will also vary from time to time within the same country. This is because all
- citizenship rights are alienable. They are relative rather than absolute. Relative
- rights are politically created civil rights rather than God-created absolute rights.
- They are not permanent like the inalienable rights attached to personhood. That is
- why citizenship rights, or relative rights, are more correctly termed “privileges”
- rather than rights (Amos 2000, 34).
From this Christian perspective, then, first generation rights, namely the rights to life, liberty, and property, are inalienable rights because they have been given by God Himself. But second generation rights and third generation rights are not actually “rights” at all, but rather “privileges” granted by particular governments for their own citizens.
Human Rights Commissions
Human rights commissions are government agencies that have been established to deal with the problem of discrimination. Some people discriminate against others just because they are of a different race, religion, nationality, etc. For example, there are people who have been denied a job just because of their skin colour. These people can complain to a human rights commission, and the commission will investigate the situation. If racial discrimination is found to have occurred, the commission can punish the discriminator, and have him compensate the victim. In a situation like this, i.e., overt racism, it is not unreasonable to see the commission as fulfilling a positive social role. However, there is more to human rights commissions than this.
Historically speaking, human rights commissions are relatively new institutions. Every Canadian province, as well as the federal government itself, has a human rights commission for dealing with discrimination within its jurisdiction. These commissions were established in the 1960s and 1970s.
The modern preoccupation with human rights is an international phenomenon. It manifests itself somewhat differently in each country where it is felt, and in Canada one significant affect was the establishment of human rights commissions. As mentioned earlier, this international concern, as well as its Canadian manifestation, is to a large degree a byproduct of World War Two.
- The Second World War was a pivotal event in the evolution of human rights legislation. The nature of this global struggle against fascism, and the realization after the war ended of the true extent of the Holocaust, changed the way people thought. The war, by mobilizing Canadians against state-sanctioned racism, by illustrating the evil consequences to which racism can lead, and by demonstrating — through the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians — the shortcomings of Canadian society itself, served as a catalyst for human rights awareness and for legislation against discrimination (Howe and Johnson 2000, 6).
Thus for the most part, it was after the War that human rights became a legislative concern. In 1944 Ontario enacted the Racial Discrimination Act, “the first piece of modern human rights legislation in Canada” (Howe and Johnson 2000, 7). Three years later, Saskatchewan enacted the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights Act. Through the 1950s, other provinces began adopting forms of anti-discrimination legislation. The next major development occurred in 1961 when Ontario created the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the first such commission in Canada. “Other provinces soon followed Ontario’s lead, and human rights commissions and consolidated human rights codes (or acts or charters) spread across the country” (Howe and Johnson 2000, 11). As a result, “by the late 1970s legislation and commissions had been established in every province and at the federal level” (Howe and Johnson 2000, 11).
Early in their history, the commissions were normally only designed to combat discrimination based on such things as race and religion. However, over time the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination has grown to include age, disability, sexual orientation, and a host of other traits. Furthermore, the authority of the commissions has been enlarged in many jurisdictions so that they can initiate actions themselves, rather than waiting for a grieved person to lodge a complaint. In short, the scope and power of the commissions has been growing over time.
It is interesting to note that the expansion of both the scope and power of the commissions has been strongly enhanced by judicial interpretation. Albertans will remember that the scope of their human rights legislation was expanded to include sexual orientation by the Supreme Court in the Vriend decision of 1998. And the power of human rights law has also been extended. In 1982 the Supreme Court ruled “that human rights legislation in Canada was ‘fundamental law,’ and thus took precedence over other legislation” (Howe and Johnson 2000, 24). Three years later the same court declared
- that although human rights legislation is not quite constitutional, it does have primacy over ordinary legislation. As quasi-constitutional law, said the Supreme Court, the courts are obligated to grant human rights legislation a broad liberal interpretation (Howe and Johnson 2000, 24).
Early in the development of human rights legislation, the courts themselves were considered to be a potential avenue for punishing discrimination. Indeed, early anti-discrimination legislation could only be enforced by bringing matters before the criminal courts where the prosecution had to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
This level of proof was very difficult to achieve, and human rights activists wanted an easier way to convict discriminators. Furthermore, these activists viewed the judicial system as being inherently conservative. Thus they called for the establishment of a semi-judicial administrative agency to oversee the implementation of human rights legislation. It was also believed that this would be less expensive than resorting to the courts. Human rights commissions were therefore created as an alternative to the traditional court system.
HRC’s: Restricting Rights to Advance Rights
Human rights commissions were thus created so that incidents of discrimination could be handled by administrative agencies specializing in human rights issues. There were a number of factors that made the idea of these agencies appealing. One significant reason was that the criminal court system provides certain rights to an accused person which make conviction difficult. Human rights activists did not want people accused of human rights violations to receive the same kinds of procedural protections available to accused murderers, rapists and thieves. So one purpose of the human rights commissions was to circumvent the longstanding legal protections available to accused persons in Canada.
Strangely, “human rights” activists were eager to bypass traditional legal rights available to accused persons in order to facilitate their agenda. Criminal law protections for accused persons in Canada would inhibit efforts to punish discrimination.
- The accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and
- the burden of proof rests with the prosecution. Under the early antidiscrimination
- statutes, prosecutions for violating statutory obligations were to be carried before the
- criminal courts. This approach . . . introduced a dynamic in which alleged
- discriminators were provided with a panoply of criminal law protections while the
- prosecution faced the most onerous test in law: proving guilt beyond a
- reasonable doubt, with guilt requiring evidence of direct action and of intent to
- discriminate (Howe and Johnson 2000, 40-41).
It was very difficult to achieve a conviction under these circumstances. Indeed, these particular legal protections were put in place to prevent innocent people from being victimized by the judicial system. But to antidiscrimination activists, they were obstacles to the enforcement of human rights. Thus by creating separate administrative agencies to handle discrimination cases, important traditional legal protections for accused persons could be avoided. Instead of the criminal law standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the commissions used the civil law standard of “proof on a balance of probabilities” (Howe and Johnson 2000, 46).
This made it easier for human rights activists to pursue their agenda. “In opting for the civil over the criminal standard of proof, rights advocates were supporting an adjudicative framework that was more conducive to the laying of complaints, the bringing of cases, and the resolution of disputes in favour of complainants” (Howe and Johnson 2000, 47). The human rights commissions provided an avenue for prosecuting alleged discriminators without having to overcome the legal protections afforded accused persons under criminal law. Even Howe and Johnson themselves, strong supporters of human rights commissions, note that “an argument could be made that the civil standard unfairly limits legal rights of the respondent” (Howe and Johnson 2000, 48).
It is a matter of significant concern that a major rationale for the creation of the commissions was the desire to avoid traditional legal protections for those accused of discrimination.
HRC’s: Social Engineering
Human rights commissions are more than just alternative dispute-resolution agencies. They are also supposed to actively advance the cause of the human rights movement and help to change people’s behaviour. This, too, was revealed in the campaign to establish the commissions.
- Advocates of human rights legislation contended that human rights policy must inevitably involve a proactive role for the state; rights were to be not only affirmed but also advanced in society as a means of resolving particular disputes and fundamentally changing the manner by which people interacted with one another. In this light, human rights law reform required careful oversight, administration, and initial adjudication by officials specializing in and committed to the human rights project (Howe and Johnson 2000, 42).
Note the emphasis on changing how people act. This could easily be interpreted as social engineering. “Much more so than the courts, the commissions were designed to change social behavior by highlighting not only injustices but also desirable forms of interaction” (Howe and Johnson 2000, 43-44). In other words, “the primary goal of commission is not to exact retribution but rather to change how people think and act toward one another” (Howe and Johnson 2000, 55).
Human rights commissions, as noted above, are not neutral agencies, but instead are actively committed to what Howe and Johnson call “the human rights project.”
- All commissions in Canada are animated by an interest in rights advocacy. Senior officials uniformly believe that rights policy is just and proper, that commissions play an integral role in promoting social justice, that rights policy must be more deeply entrenched and more widely expanded, and that commissions should play a leading role in this effort (Howe and Johnson 2000, 158).
Human rights commissions, then, are (among other things) advocacy organizations for the modern human rights movement, and one central purpose of the commissions is to get people to conform their behaviour to the expectations of that movement. In recent years this has included the promotion of homosexual rights, and the attempt to punish conservative Christians who are alleged to have discriminated against homosexuals. For reasons such as these, conservative Christians have rightly viewed the commissions as political opponents.
There is further reason to be concerned about the social engineering that is implicit in the commissions’ work. As University of Calgary political scientist Rainer Knopff has pointed out, the modern “human rights project” is based on a conception of human nature that is fundamentally at odds with the Christian view. Knopff discusses two views of human nature and how they relate to issues of discrimination and human rights. Although he doesn’t use the term “Christian,” he describes one view of human nature that he calls “classical liberal” that roughly approximates the Christian view. In this view, “human beings are naturally rather nasty and anti-social. . . In this account vanity, pride, and selfishness are considered ineradicable aspects of human nature” (Knopff 1990, 18-19). If this is an accurate portrayal of human nature, “it will be impossible to expunge discrimination altogether except by undermining the individual freedom that permits it to flourish. From the perspective of classical liberalism, then, discrimination poses a permanent and insoluble dilemma or tension” (Knopff 1990, 19).
The conception of human nature underlying the modern human rights project is very different. Here people are considered “to be inherently good rather than naturally anti-social. . . In this view human nastiness is the product not of ‘nature’ but of ‘society’ or the ‘system'” (Knopff 1990, 19-20). In short, if people don’t behave properly, it’s because their society has made them behave this way. They are, in a sense, blank slates, and their societal environment makes them what they are. If an improperly ordered society will cause people to behave badly, then the logical corollary to this is that a properly ordered society will cause people to act good. This view is known as “constructivism”: society can be reconstructed according to
- intellectually derived criteria. . . using the coercive power of the state if necessary. Constructivists are confident that such transformatory projects can succeed because they attribute man’s unpleasant characteristics to the effects of a “system” that is within man’s power to alter and control (Knopff 1990 20).
This view can take somewhat different forms.
- At the extreme this orientation can become a form of “political messianism,” believing that state action can solve all problems by making society over according to the abstract image of the social theorist. More moderately it engenders confidence that society can be indefinitely improved through a continuing series of state-sponsored reforms (Knopff 1990, 20).
The modern human rights movement is probably imbued with this more moderate form, rather than “political messianism,” but it still poses a danger. In order to create a better society, one where discrimination will no longer exist, “those who were molded by the old environment cannot be permitted the freedom and power to perpetuate it” (Knopff 1990, 21-22). The freedom of these people must be suppressed.
- If human beings really are the product of their social environment, and if it is possible successfully to remake them by reconstructing their environment, this suppression of freedom can be seen as a temporary expedient in the historical march to a greater and more comprehensive freedom (Knopff 1990, 22).
Short-term pain for long-term gain: suppressing freedom temporarily to create a better society. If people are naturally good and only become corrupt due to their social environment, this is entirely possible.
- If, on the other hand, anti-social tendencies are rooted in nature, as both ancient and early modern political philosophy agreed (and as I believe), such projects in social engineering are fundamentally misconceived and the suppression of freedom they require will be permanent, not temporary (Knopff 1990, 22).
What this suggests is that the philosophical foundation of the modern human rights movement, and hence human rights commissions, is flawed. The conception of human nature underlying this view is in error, and thus the solutions it proposes are also in error. While a person’s environment certainly influences his attitudes, views, and behaviour, the Christian position is that people are inherently sinful, and that sinfulness (as well as its manifestations) cannot be eradicated by a change in the social environment. As Knopff suggests, then, the restrictions on freedom imposed by human rights commissions will be permanent. The “anti-social” characteristics that those restrictions attempt to eradicate will always be present.
HRC’s: Modern “Human Rights” as a Threat to Free Speech
Right across Canada Christians have had to face the wrath of various provincial human rights commissions. Among the most threatening aspects of the commissions is their lack of concern for the traditional right to free speech. This is clearly illustrated in the case of Stephen Boissoin in Alberta.
In 2002 Stephen Boissoin (then a youth pastor and the executive director of the Concerned Christian Coalition, or CCC) wrote a letter to the editor of the Red Deer Advocate newspaper that was published on June 17 of that year. It contained strongly worded criticism of the homosexual rights movement. The following month, Dr. Darren Lund filed a complaint against Boissoin and the CCC with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Lund claimed that the letter incited hatred against homosexuals.
To make a long story short, on November 30, 2007, the Alberta Human Rights Panel agreed with Lund. The panel chair, Lori Andreachuk, found “that the statements made by Mr. Boissoin and the CCC are likely to expose homosexuals to hatred and contempt due to their sexual preference” (Andreachuk 2007, 72). She claimed that she weighed the issue of “freedom of expression” versus “the eradication of discrimination.” But then she found “in balancing the two freedoms, that the eradication of hate speech, such as that promulgated by Mr. Boissoin and the CCC is paramount to the freedom Mr. Boissoin and the CCC should have to speak their views” (Andreachuk 2007, 75-76). In other words, preventing public expression of opposition to the homosexual rights movement is more important than freedom.
What makes this decision even more grievous is that prior to making the decision, the panel had received expert testimony from University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper. Prof. Cooper stated that in his expert opinion, Boissoin’s letter fell within the legitimate scope of free speech. He further stated that “in his expert opinion he does not believe there is any evidence of hatred” (Andreachuk 2007, 21). Thus Andreachuk rejected an expert on free speech issues in Western democracies in order to use her power against Stephen Boissoin.
On May 30, 2008, Andreachuk released her “remedy” whereby she ordered Boissoin to pay Lund $5000 even though Lund was not a homosexual and therefore not a “victim.” Also, Boissoin had to apologize to Lund in writing and refrain from making “disparaging remarks” about homosexuals in the future. That restriction would include personal emails, sermons, and any other avenue of communication.
Boissoin appealed the decision to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, which ruled in December of 2009 that the Alberta Human Rights Commission’s decision was wrong. Lund is attempting to appeal this. Even though the court sided with Boissoin, this whole ordeal has cost him well over $100,000 in legal expenses while the complainant gets his costs covered by tax dollars.
Human rights, which originated as a Christian ideal, have now been distorted into a tool to prevent Christian opposition to certain forms of sexual immorality. This is certainly a tremendous irony.
Ajzenstat, Janet. 2007. The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
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