The Conscience of International Human Rights

The Conscience of International
Human Rights

Conscience has played a central role in the history of modern human rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights put issues of conscience up front and center, mentioning the word no less than three times, including in the Preamble and very first article. The significance of conscience was also hardwired into Amnesty International’s original mission, as it rose to prominence as an organization devoted to protecting Prisoners of Conscience. For much of the mid-twentieth century international human rights movement, conscience was both the driving motivation of human rights work, and the thing they sought to protect, sometimes even being seen as the foundational human right. Yet, over the following sixty years, much of the movement appears to have become significantly less interested in the issue. Part of the reason for the relative loss of focus might be that conscience has simply been crowded out, as social and economic rights in particular, have been given an increasing prominence. The question remains though, given its foundational status, how has conscience been so easily put to one side? And what has been lost, if anything, along the way?  

Within human rights work, the category of conscience has implicitly served as a cross-cultural category marking the universal human capacity to make moral judgments. In this sense it is both used descriptively and prescriptively, stating what humans are already and what they should be. As with human right more generally, it has been argued that a focus on conscience has its roots in Christian thought and practice. Far from being the basis on a universal form of human freedom, conscience is a narrow and discriminatory form of personhood that effectively marginalizes other political and religious projects. The ways in which different forms of conviction have been legitimized and regulated has shaped the concerns of human rights practitioners and their approaches to conscience. Human rights have been criticized by failing to provide a positive vision of humanity by promoting a hollow “most we can hope for” humanism, that focuses on suffering rather than potential human flourishing. There have also been widespread claims that twenty-first century human rights have lost their moral energy in a retreat into technical managerialism. In this context, examining conscience can help provide an alternative perspective on the international human rights movement – one that emphasizes convictions about the human potential for doing good in the world. The task is to parochialise international human rights norms, to treat them as contingent outcomes of specific cultural and political struggles, with their own built in assumptions about conscience and what it means to be human.   

candle wrapped with barbed wire

Image: MediaProduction/Getty Images