Thursday, July 27, 2017

[Second Opinion] "Human rights are for crybabies"

Some people ridicule the whole idea of human rights, saying it’s only for crybabies. My response to them? That’s exactly why it’s so important.

I had never thought much of babies until recently when I became an uncle. Baby Tori, my sister’s daughter, was four months old when I first saw her, and she was truly precious, a joy to behold. When you hold a baby for the first time, you are filled with wonder at seeing a human being’s frail beginnings—and with an awesome responsibility for someone so innocent and powerless.

Baby Tori, to my sister’s relief, is no “crybaby.” But as with all babies, there can be no predicting her behavior, and sometimes she would cry when we’re in church or a restaurant, raising our anxiety. In medical school I learned that crying can mean many things: It can be a sign of hunger, fatigue, discomfort, fear, or desire for companionship—but as my brother-in-law says, “parents are usually more worried than others.”

Of course, the other churchgoers or diners do not seem to get annoyed at Tori for crying; most of them throw sympathetic glances our way. They understand a four-month-old’s capabilities, because most of them have also experienced caring for babies.

To be honest, I used to hate being seated next to a baby in a bus or an airplane. But when it happens to me nowadays, I find myself more understanding. I think of my niece and I am filled with happy memories. Surely, no one has the right to get in the way of her sense of wonder for a world that to her mind remains beautiful.

Crying babies can be a metaphor for the voiceless and the powerless of the world, who, like infants, can only cry for mercy and justice. Human rights, after all, are not for those who have the ability to exact freedom and comfort with their own means. Our due is responsibility, not remonstration, and life can go on without anyone intervening on our behalf.

But human rights are still important, because others do not necessarily share our experience of the world. Just as it is hard to understand why a baby cries, it can be difficult to comprehend others’ pleas. When people march on the streets to protest unfair wages or indiscriminate airstrikes, we can easily dismiss them as causing traffic, because we do not have hungry children waiting for us, or homes at risk of being collateral damage in a war. Without empathy, there can be no solidarity.
And guess what? We need others, too, if only because someday we may be the ones who are in need. Isn’t life a cycle, and the babies of today the ones who could take care of us tomorrow? When we lift them up and protect them, we are not just valuing them, we are valuing ourselves and the rest of humanity as well.

Some say that human rights are being used as a tool to discredit governments. But isn’t this the very discourse that reduces human rights to mere talking points? Surely the political ramifications are secondary to the very real consequences for people on the ground.

Then there are those who concede that human rights per se are important, but the problem is that the human rights of “criminals” are being prioritized over those of the “victims.” But how can we label people as “criminals” when their right to due process is not respected in the first place? Besides, the issue of human rights is not a zero sum game, in which valuing one comes at the expense of devaluing the other. A strong and credible justice system—and not politicians — should decide whether people are hiding behind human rights as a shield.

If, like Kafka’s Joseph K, you find yourself wrongfully accused, labeled a criminal, a terrorist, or a drug user, will you not protest? And when, under pain of death, your pleas of innocence are dismissed, will you not cry?

And so when it comes to human rights, don’t think of the issue in political terms, or as an abstract and naive concept. Instead, think of the babies and children closest to your heart. For them and for those like them in spirit, we must keep fighting for human rights: the last and only resort for the weak and the defenseless.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

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