Rowan Williams considers more and less helpful ways of thinking about human rights.
When people attack the discourse of human rights these days, it’s often because they see it as a system of entitlement – everybody comes into the world with a sort of checklist tacked onto their cradle, “I have the right to x, y and z”. And rights are seen in terms of claims – claims like legal claims that can be enforced in some kind of court.
Now, you can see how we got here. Because it’s very important that people believe there are certain things that are owing to them as human beings. It’s not helpful when it comes to be seen in that very legalistic way and that rather individualistic way, “I have all these things that are due to me. I want my rights.” And historically the notion of rights has gone with the notion of duties, with the notion of dignity. And I must say I think it’s more helpful sometimes to talk about permanent ineradicable human dignity sometimes than human rights because if you get the dignity straight, the rights follow. If you get the sense of what a human being really is, then you get a vivid sense of what’s due to them. If you start with trying to enumerate all the things due to them without ever quite getting that fundamental point, then you get into that rather scratchy, rather apparently self-interested world that human rights sometimes are seen as being. Mistakenly, I think – but there’s a lot of that perception around.