By Abigail Wilkinson, M.A. student

The Commission on Unalienable Rights at the US Department of State was drawn together to take a fresh look at the role of human rights, at a time when a lot of people are losing faith in the role that they occupy in our public policy. The Commission is tasked with working at the level of principle—not policy—which enables it to consider the foundational issues which undergird current problems and debates. From the very beginning of the meeting, it was fascinating to note the diverse backgrounds which the Commissioners bring to bear on this work. Between them, they represent a number of different fields, including philosophy, ethics, history, and economics. During the February 21st meeting, the Commission heard from Martha Minow, a professor at Harvard Law School, and Thor Halvorssen, the founder and CEO of the Human Rights Foundation, who is currently advocating for human rights in his native Venezuela.

Over the course of the afternoon, I was particularly struck by the emphasis on the centrality of human dignity in human rights work. Minow prefaced her address to the Commission by stressing that human rights ultimately concern the dignity of each and every human being. One of the major challenges that currently effects our human rights discourse is the perceived conflict between various rights. However, Minow argues, holding fast to a foundation of human dignity helps to lessen the tension between civil and political rights and social and economic rights. Halvorssen would later push back on this idea, arguing that the former are the building blocks of human flourishing and must be protected first. But Minow would strain that the question to ask is not “which rights?” but “what is necessary to respect the full and inviolable dignity of the human person?” This fundamental concept is very much reflected in the social teaching of the Catholic Church. The Catechism states it clearly: “Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons” (CCC 357).

Minow consequently highlighted the role of empathy in the human rights arena. Affronts to human dignity ought to evoke our empathy—and this should shape the ensuing public policy debates. Minow advised that we should not be afraid to delve into the conflicts that arise between rights claims, but that this is where we must especially discipline ourselves to get to the root of the conflict with courtesy and with civility. The practice of human rights work must be marked by a willingness to understand others, even when their perspective is not closely aligned with ours. The practice of empathy protects the dignity of our interlocutors and furthermore, is an effective tool in our work. In fostering good will even among those we disagree with, we are better able to advance a true understanding of human dignity.

In his 1980 encyclical letter, Dives in misericordia, John Paul II also underscores the connection between compassion (or mercy) and respect for the dignity of all persons. He provides an exegesis of the parable of the prodigal son, writing that it demonstrates that “the relationship of mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him.” And mercy or compassion is at it’s most perfect when it drives us outside of ourselves: “The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical, or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes, and draws good from all the forms of evil that exist in the world and in man.”

And so, both Minow and Halvorssen noted the role that the present-day phenomenon of “compassion fatigue” plays in halting adequate public responses to human rights crises. What good does it does to empathize with the people of Venezuela if our involvement ends there? One of the challenges that will face the Commission is that of demonstrating the gravity of abuses against human dignity in a fast-paced, technology-driven world where many have grown resigned to them. After getting the opportunity to witness them in action, I have no doubt that they are up to the challenge.

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