For any government, human rights can often be a nuisance. When people protest against breaches of human rights, they criticise the actions of their government, try to prevent it from doing what it wants to do, hold up its plans and give it a bad reputation overseas.

So the Australian Government, like many other governments, has refused to endorse a charter of rights, has attacked international bodies that criticise it for abuses of human rights, and enacts laws to insulate its projects from legal challenge.

Many people, too, regard activists who protest against abuses of human rights as unrealistic and legalistic. Some accuse them of inventing rights at a drop of a hat to suit their case. They also point out that many States that offer the strongest protection of human rights in their legal codes have shown the least respect for them in practice.

Although they can be inconvenient and provoking, human rights matter. It is important to defend human rights and to encourage nations to recognise them. This need was clear to the survivors of the Second World War who had seen the gross violations of human rights under both Nazi and Communist regimes. These States regarded human rights as a privilege that they could give and take away as they chose. History spells out in the alphabet of gas chambers and gulags what that attitude meant for ordinary people.

The recognition that governments will always be tempted to regard human rights as expendable, particularly in times of anxiety like our own, made the struggle to defend them an international movement. We celebrate its fruits today, International Human Rights Day. It insisted that all human beings have rights simply by being human, not by being right-thinking, amenable or of the right religion, race and political persuasion. The State does not create rights. Nor may it take them away.

The enumeration of human rights is a way of spelling out that each human being is precious and demands to be respected. The different rights point to aspects of human life where people must be respected. They are not an arbitrary list but together they build up a picture of what respect for human dignity means.

So we say that human beings have a right to food, drink, shelter, safety, medical care, education, work, to associate freely and to practice their religion. We need these rights respected if we are to flourish as human beings. Even if they cannot be guaranteed in all times and places, the right to them continues to exist, as does the responsibility of the international community to address the situation.

When governments deprive people of education, freedom or forbid them to work, we ought to be concerned. The deprivation and the contempt that it demonstrates diminish them as human beings, and soon affects their health and spirits. That is why immigration detention facilities have been described as factories for producing mental illness. They embody disrespect and destroy people’s lives.

Similarly we must hold governments responsible when they adopt policies that attribute to children adult responsibility for criminal behaviour and routinely incarcerate them, and that prevent vulnerable children who suffer from mental illness from accessing appropriate help. Respect for human rights must be implemented in the effective delivery services as well as in rhetoric.

Of course if we are to flourish as human beings, rights are not enough. We need relationships in which we find and offer care. The automated announcements on the railway station that tell us when the next train is coming and warn us to stay behind the line respect our right to security. But if we are homeless or a stranger in town they are cold comfort. In order to flourish we need human company and sympathy.

At Jesuit Social Services we work with vulnerable young people whose rights are always at risk. They often live on the margins of society and lack the knowledge or skills necessary to ensure a proper respect. It is our business to advocate for them so that their rights are respected. But the quality of our relationships with them is equally important. We need first to offer to accompany them on their life’s journey, then to ask them what they need, and finally to help them achieve it.

To struggle in defence of human rights takes courage and constancy. To respect the people whose rights we defend requires delicacy.

10 December 2015