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Are Human Rights a Legal or Moral Matter?


In his “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell notes the political and economic consequences of using language poorly. Central to his argument is how language can obscure meaning. Pedantry and pretention boost your ego, perhaps, but they prevent the audience from grasping the intent. Abusing language distracts us from the heart of the matter.

The central problem facing us today is the inability to name good and evil. I recently read an article about Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan, a governmental force established to fight rebels. The article described gross human rights abuses the RSF was found guilty of after coming under scrutiny by the Human Rights Watch. Numerous counts of torture, rape and murder of innocent civilians accounted for a sizable portion of the RSF’s crimes against humanity. The article does a good job detailing the problem. What it does less well is naming the problem.

Consider the following paragraph:

The RSF violations of international humanitarian law amount to war crimes.  The mass rape and killings and other abuses appear part of widespread and systematic attacks on civilian populations that may constitute crimes against humanity. Crimes against humanity are serious offenses, including murder, torture and rape, committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population. As Human Rights Watch research has found, the RSF committed rape in numerous towns and villages over an extended period of time, making them widespread.  First-hand accounts of orders from commanders to commit crimes and the RSF’s repeated use of abusive practices indicate that they were systematic.

The facts are accurate, but the language is problematic. Using rights language of “crime,” “abuses,” “may constitute crimes against humanity,” “serious offenses,” and so forth can only convey the legal wrongness of particular actions, but not their moral wrongness. In other words, laws protect human rights, and violating rights is therefore wrong because it breaks those laws. The legal matter is forefront; the moral is entirely ignored.

Most reasonable people seem to agree that murder, rape and torture are morally reprehensible. There's no political controversy there. Yet our primary concern with such grievances is not that they infringe upon a list of rights. The truth is that such actions are evil because they violate the dignity of human persons. The RSF's actions don't pose a legal dilemma, but a moral one. Our language needs to communicate that.


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