The small nation of Brunei announced this week that it intends to punish homosexuality and adultery with death by stoning, in keeping with their strict interpretation of Islamic law. CNN coverage is here.
Many world leaders have chimed in to denounce this as cruel and inhumane. Human rights groups have also been quick to protest. For example, Amnesty International stated, “Brunei must immediately halt its plans to implement these vicious punishments, and revise its Penal Code in compliance with its human rights obligations. The international community must urgently condemn Brunei’s move to put these cruel penalties into practice.”
Why Can’t Brunei Decide For Itself?
Brunei’s Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, provided a very interesting defense of this law. According to CNN, he said his government, “does not expect other people to accept and agree with it, but that it would suffice if they just respect the nation in the same way that it also respects them.”
This raises a key point. I think we would all scream bloody murder if anyone tried to impose these rules on us. But these punishments are for citizens of Brunei only. Maybe they find our legal permissiveness immoral. Why shouldn’t we respect Brunei’s right to stone homosexuals, as long as they respect our right to make laws for ourselves
This is in a sense one of the key questions about human rights. Who says they should be universal across all cultures and religions? Maybe human rights are just an expression of Western values, and like this sultan says there is no basis for imposing them on any society that disagrees.
The Purpose of Human Rights
There are lots of different approaches one can take to refute this. Let me give one answer by taking a broad look at the origins and purposes of the human rights movement as a whole.
Before human rights and the United Nations (which isn’t so long ago), the highest authorities were political and religious leaders. There was nothing to stop a government from doing whatever it could justify and get away with. Carpet bomb enemies? If there’s no fear of retaliation, and we think they deserve it, it’s a go. Take slaves? If we think some people are inferior and it serves them right, what’s the problem? And so on.
A primary purpose of human rights is to put a stop to this. And it’s surprisingly difficult. Take the carpet bombing. I could object that the bombing is killing innocent civilians who shoulder no blame for the enemy’s war efforts. But the other side can say no- every enemy citizen is an evil monster, and anyway these are the rules of war we fight by and who are you to tell us what to do?
And what about slavery? I can contend that no one has the right to subjugate, exploit, or take another human as property. But I’ll be told that’s just my opinion, and the slave keepers disagree. The slaves really deserve their fate and are happier this way, and in any case slavery is part of their religion or culture going back thousands of years and no outsider has the right to interfere.
Must Be Universal
The only way to make progress is to assert that human rights are universal. Only then do I have legs to stand on when making these assertions. It’s wrong for a nation to carpet bomb its enemy’s civilians, because it’s wrong to target any civilians ever. Ah, but don’t I realize that these enemies deserve it because of what their country has done to us? No dice. Whatever they’ve done, it’s still forbidden to target civilians.
And slaves? Can’t. Doesn’t matter what you think of the morality or abilities of the folks being exploited, doesn’t matter what they’ve done or tried to do in the past or the situation in which the slavery came about, it’s expressly forbidden. But your people have kept slaves for generations, it’s part of your culture, and it has origins in the Bible? Too bad. We’re telling you now that slavery is unconditionally wrong.
In other words, I can’t argue that what we define today as the scope of human rights is an absolute truth. In fact, the makeup of what constitutes human rights is hotly debated (I try to highlight some of these discussions in the haggadah.) But if we don’t agree that human rights must be universal, these debates will be of no use.
Can’t Give Them Up Either
There’s a further subtlety. Even if we accept that rights must be universal, can people volunteer to give them up? Maybe the citizens of Brunei wish to voluntarily surrender some of their sexual freedoms in order to create a society that respects their religious mores.
But if we allow citizens to surrender their human rights at the behest of their political or religious leaders, once again the cause of human rights will be swiftly defeated.
A government could declare that to insure political stability, economic prosperity, public morality, or anything else it’s in the citizens’ interest to surrender their freedoms for the common good. The military could declare that the enemy has waved its rights by committing atrocities and so in this particular conflict bombs away. A slave owner could show off how happy his slaves are. If they nod when he boasts about how well he treats them he could then deflect all criticism with this fiction that they consent to their bondage.
Human rights are not an absolute truth, and it’s certainly legitimate to debate what is and isn’t a human right. But claiming that human rights are not universal or can voluntarily be given up is really the same as saying they shouldn’t exist at all.
Best Interest of Everyone
Of course, there’s nothing to stop someone from taking that position. Perhaps, in fact, the sultan of Brunei is of the opinion that since people survived millennia without human rights we may as well make do without them still. He’s entitled.
But remind the sultan that this is a two way street. If he wants other nations to respect his right to stone homosexuals, he’ll have to respect decisions those other countries make that he disagrees with also. For example, should Brunei’s enemies threaten to wage a campaign of terrorism against it, carpet bomb its cities, and take its people as slaves he better have a good army. It wouldn’t be any use complaining about that being the way they choose to fight.
Acceptance of human rights requires everyone to give up a little autonomy. Even if there’s no knockout logical or philosophical argument why any nation or government has to accept this, the best reason may turn out to be self-interest. We all benefit from increased peace and security, and no one seems to have a better way to advance the cause of a more peaceful world.