Last Saturday, December 10, was Human Rights Day. That same day, Memorial, a Russian research and human rights organization, received a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts.
The principal mission of human rights, as set forth in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, is to put limits on government. Certain rights of individuals are given priority over and protection against some applications of state power. Under the social justice standard of human rights, individual persons are given some powers which governments must not restrict and governments are given some duties to serve individuals which such governments must not ignore or abuse.
In short, human rights prevent the state from acting as a tyrant and transform its work into service of the people.
When it recognized that no moral capitalism could survive cruel and oppressive political regimes, the Caux Round Table proposed a set of moral principles for governments. The principal standard for all government action is to faithfully execute a public trust. The Caux Round Table’s standards for government mirror the moral foundation of human rights.
The Caux Round Table Principles for Government hold as a fundamental principle that:
Public power is held in trust for the community.
Power brings responsibility. Power is a necessary moral circumstance in that it binds the actions of one to the welfare of others.
Therefore, the power given by public office is held in trust for the benefit of the community and its citizens. Officials are custodians only of the powers they hold. They have no personal entitlement to office or the prerogatives thereof.
Holders of public office are accountable for their conduct while in office. They are subject to removal for malfeasance, misfeasance or abuse of office. The burden of proof that no malfeasance, misfeasance or abuse of office has occurred lies with the officeholder.
The state is the servant and agent of higher ends. It is subordinate to society. Public power is to be exercised within a framework of moral responsibility for the welfare of others. Governments that abuse their trust shall lose their authority and may be removed from office.
The fundamental principal for moral government was eloquently applied by Jan Rachinsky on Saturday in his remarks accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Memorial. He said, in part:
We are investigating and documenting crimes; crimes against individual human beings and against humanity, already committed or currently being committed, by state power. What we see as the root cause of these crimes is the sanctification of the Russian state as the supreme value. This requires that the absolute priority of power is to serve the ‘interests of the state’ over the interests of individual human beings and their freedom, dignity and rights. In this inverted system of values, people are merely expendable material to be used for resolving governmental tasks. This is the system that prevailed in the Soviet Union for seventy years and regrettably continues ‘til today. …
Another consequence of this exaltation of the state was and remains impunity, not only for those who make criminal political decisions, but also for those who commit crimes in the execution of those decisions. …
For seventy years, the Soviet state destroyed any solidarity among people, atomized society, eradicated any expression of civic solidarity and thus turned society into docile and voiceless masses. Today’s sad state of civil society in Russia is a direct consequence of its unresolved past.
If the state has supreme value, as Rachinsky asserts, it cannot serve as a faithful trustee of its citizens and their values.