Nike, Coca-Cola and Apple are among the major companies lobbying Congress to weaken a bill.
This is hardly news, but what makes it surprising is that this bill would ban imported goods made with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, according to a Nov. 29 report in The New York Times.
Please read that again.
Isn’t forced labor (slavery’s close cousin) an egregious violation of human rights? How can the maker of our ubiquitous smart phones or tennis shoes be so heartless? Shouldn’t “forced labor” be fought with every economic weapon we have?
The answer is clear.
Yet, when the victims are so ethnically “other” (often this seems to imply those of dark skin) and so geographically distant, our professed commitments to human rights get rather diluted.
This is particularly true when stacked next to supply lines and profit margins, which would be impacted by this bill requiring proof that forced labor was not used at any stage of production.
How do we encourage a robust engagement on human rights? Xinjiang is hardly the only case where human rights are being trampled.
No one reading these words has any ambivalence or apathy about their own human rights. Intuitively, naturally and enthusiastically, we embrace our own “right to life, liberty and security of person” (see Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
We all believe we have a right to live in freedom. We hold a natural conviction that we have freedom of conscience and thought and that we are free to worship in liberty and security.
Moreover, somewhat effortlessly, we extend this belief about rights to those we love. It pains us to see anyone we care about being deprived of freedom or liberty without cause. This is a cross-cultural, and so universal, human trait.
Certainly, cultures, religions and nations may define and emphasize rights differently, but part of being a conscious human is the sensitivity to your rights and the rights of those for whom you care.
This is why a great piece of fiction, however rooted in a particular place and culture, has such universal appeal.
Great stories, blockbuster movies, even ancient mythical narratives involve some hero or heroine overcoming an antagonist who threatens his or her right to do something they should have the freedom to do (marry, live, worship, travel, maintain their property and so on).
But what of the other? What of those who think, worship or live quite differently than we do?
What about rights for those who are our enemies or those who, at least superficially, have different values? What of the Uyghur Muslim from Xinjiang swept off the street and put into a “reeducation camp” and forced to labor for little?
These are not academic or irrelevant questions. The world seems as divided as it was on Dec. 10, 1948, when the United Nations’ General Assembly established the UDHR.
There is both a moral and an ideological answer to which we should pay heed.
The moral answer involves listening to the traditional teaching of most every major religion that recognizes the inherent dignity of every person.
The golden rule (a version of which is found in most religions), the command to love your neighbor, the imperative in so many religions to see other humans as your sibling, all point the way to this moral foundation for human rights.
One need not be religious to embrace this understanding of human dignity. In fact, there is evidence that religion can be used as a shield to keep you from empathy.
A case in point is seen in Robert Jones’ excellent new book, White Too Long. He shows compelling evidence that American Christians hold more racist attitudes than those of the general population. In spite of the clear teachings of Jesus, Christians have used their religion to prop up white supremacy.
On the other hand, there is little question that faith actors were key to the extension of human rights (abolition of slavery or the civil rights of Blacks in the ’60s, as two obvious examples), but religious commitment alone does not provide a miracle cure for the un-empathetic heart.
We must continually seek to extend empathy to the other. This is the moral, even spiritual, heart of human rights.
The ideological answer is, I fear, even more counter cultural. We, particularly in the West, have come to understand rights as protections granted to us (from God or government) and we passively receive them.
But rights, in reality, aren’t passive constructs that fall from heaven. For every embodied right, there is a correlative obligation. For every right we “get,” we are called to “give” to another by active engagement.
There is no right to free speech without the correlative obligation to listen to, or at minimum ignore, the free speaker.
There is no right to religious liberty without the correlative obligation to show deference to beliefs that may differ from your own.
Article 23.2 of the UDHR reads, “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.” This implies an obligation for employers to resist the obvious temptation to exploit vulnerable workers.
At the end of the day, we need to do a better job engaging in, and educating about, the moral and ideological foundations of rights we all appreciate for ourselves so they might be expanded to all.
Rights with no consequent obligations are not unlike a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. They profit us little.
Human rights in their fullness are an expression of love.
As anyone who is in a relationship comes to know, real love requires empathy for another, who is sometimes hard to understand, and an obligation to live beyond your immediate wants and wishes.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). The previous articles in the series are:
No Room for Debate: Trans People Have Rights | Junia Joplin
Do We Observe Human Rights or Practice Hypocrisy? | Wendell Griffen
Nationality: Your Right to Belong in This World | Brent Hamoud
Governments Won’t Do Right Thing for Vulnerable | Pam Strickland
4 Ways You Can Help with Migrant Crisis | Sue Smith
Unions Offer Protection to Hard-Working People | Chris Sanders
Will Choice Fix Educational Woes? Not So Fast | Cameron Vickrey
Pastor of Metro Baptist Church of New York City and a representative of the Baptist World Alliance and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at the United Nations where he leads the Human Rights Cluster of the NGO Major Group.