Human Rights: the right to be yourself

A lifetime of working in human rights – as senior lawyer with the UN, Secretary of the Human Rights Committee, Chief of Petitions, Independent Expert on International Order, President of a human rights ngo, professor of international and human rights law and activist author allows me to confirm the truism that human rights are interrelated and interdependent. Experience demonstrates that human rights constitute a holistic system of interdependent entitlements and freedoms. Yet, the oft repeated slogan that “all rights are equal” is a platitude, manifesting an absence of a sense for proportions and discernment. Indeed, human dignity, the source of all human rights, necessarily dictates priorities – a hierarchy based on common sense and mutual respect: First and foremost, the right to live in dignity, a commitment to promote and protect the sanctity of life, which encompasses physical integrity, the right to food, water, housing, healthcare, freedom from war, a human right to peace. Secondly, the right to freely develop one’s personality i.e. the right to be who we are, the right to our identity, the right to set the priorities of our lives – that essential right of self-determination, free from artificial constraints imposed by government or society – and as a corollary the duty to respect the rights of others. Codification of human rights has not been concluded, since continuing standard-setting remains necessary to better protect the practical exercise of our common human dignity. Yet, it would seem that all rights can be subsumed under the two categories above, and that the letter of the law must never be instrumentalized to subvert the spirit of the law, the primacy of the dignitas humana.

Alfred de Zayas

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