The Manna of Human Rights

What does it mean to have human “rights”? It’s a question that I’ve thought about a lot, as a human rights major and as a Christian. It’s a question that has kept me up at night as I read news stories about children being bombed in Aleppo and women being tortured in rape camps. It’s a question that permeates every field of study, from biology and nuclear engineering, to history and philosophy. This question can determine life or death for individuals and communities.

This article will address the importance of having a theory behind human dignity in order to advocate for human rights. And because all humans—regardless of their backgrounds and preferences—need food to live, I will use the lens of the human right to food to illustrate the practice of implementing the more theoretical arguments.

Background of “Human Rights”

Capital H-R Human Rights were officially “founded” in 1948, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); the declaration was a response to the atrocities of World War II. However, because it was only a declaration, it had no legally-binding effect. Still, it laid forth the foundations for later legally-enforceable international human rights laws.

The first line of the UDHR recognizes “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”[1] Actually, all nine of the core international human rights instruments[2] are founded on the concept of human dignity.

Human Dignity: Non-theistic perspective

But here’s the problem. Nowhere in any human rights document is “human dignity” ever defined. We just assume that people have human dignity and worth, and thus there is a standard of treatment towards humans that we must attain. There are no theories in human rights discourse that give clues as to how or why humans have inherent dignity. That is a problem, when a huge chunk of implementing human rights involves litigation in courts, and when said litigation involves a lot of nitty-gritty definition-seeking-and-tweaking work.

So why are human rights continually (and seemingly incessantly) violated? I dare say that it is because there is that fundamental issue of “human dignity.” After all, if its definition— the phrase being literally foundational to human rights discourse and advocacy—is vague and its origin is never thought out, then implementing human rights indeed becomes a game of politics, open to manipulation and, ultimately, legally-justified violations. While it sounds great to say that human beings have inherent dignity and inalienable rights, until we discover how, why, and from where this dignity exists, these are just going to be empty words.

Now I’m going to say something that may be controversial, and may bring some whiplash: The problem with the current framework of international human rights, is that it is non-theistic and secular.

Bertrand Russell, an atheist (or debatably an agnostic[3]), sums up what the consistent atheist view is: If indeed there is no God, there is no actual purpose for our existence, and we are simply a “random collocation of atoms.”[4] Humans are nothing more than the physical. The implication of this is that then, any rights or sense of dignity are actually just arbitrarily assigned—by humans themselves. And if these rights and this dignity were arbitrarily assigned and subjectively defined by humans, then they can be arbitrarily taken away and subjectively “un-defined”—also by humans themselves.

The non-theistic conclusion of where our human dignity comes from is that our human dignity, the foundation of our human rights, is just arbitrary. “Human dignity” was simply defined by a group of humans in a period of time. There’s nothing more to it. Walk into any human rights class on this campus, strike up a conversation about where “human dignity” comes from, and you will be faced with circular arguments and an ultimate dead-end. The conversation just ends at, “We have dignity because we’re humans and we’re just entitled to it.” This lack of investigation provides leeway for human rights violations, atrocities, and ultimately, impunity.

Human Dignity: Christian Perspective

On the other hand, the Christian perspective is quite different, and it has some shocking claims.

Desmond M. Tutu, an Anglican Archbishop in Cape Town, writes that “the Bible makes some quite staggering assertions about human beings which came to be the foundations of the culture of basic human rights that have become so commonplace in our day and age.”[5] Indeed, the human rights movement was originally a Christian movement. Before, “certain groups were inferior or superior because of possessing or not possessing a particular attribute (physical or cultural).”[6] This changed with the claims of the Bible.

The first major claim of Christianity is that humans have human dignity because humans were made in the image of God (this doctrine is called Imago Dei[7]). Genesis 1 paints a picture of creation as something steadily progressing towards a climax. Then, in verse 26, there seems to be a pause—a sense of deliberation— before God finally says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”[8] Humans are depicted as the climax of creation. This is significant because, by claiming that human beings are all made in the image of God, the Bible is stating that humans have “this exalted status … that has nothing to do with this or that extraneous attribute”[9] such as those of physical or cultural characteristics. Life being a gift from the Creator of everything, it is then inviolable.[10] Having human dignity is equivalent to having a sense of inherent self-worth and empowerment, whether that be physical or psychological—on the basis that we are made in the likeness of God.

But that’s not the full picture—that was before The Fall. The rest of this “Christian perspective” argument are my thoughts, after much pondering over how to approach human rights in a gospel-centered way.

In the beginning (the theory of the Big Bang—which was first theorized by a Christian scientist: Georges Lemaître), we were created in the image of God and given life. And everything was fine and dandy. But then, The Fall happened. When Adam and Eve took the fruit, they betrayed God. A relationship was broken—a divorce between humans and God. Sin entered the picture, and it was passed down the generations. Fast forward to present day, and we are still helplessly broken sinners who hurt each other and get hurt. We just can’t help it.

When examining the atrocities of the world on both an international and personal level—the Holocaust, the genocides in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Armenia, the rape camps in the former Yugoslavia and in Da’esh-controlled territories, the war crimes in Aleppo, the hurtful things we say and do to one another on a day-to-day basis—any honest person would recognize that there is in fact nothing that we have done and nothing that we presently are that “entitle” us to any rights or dignity.[11]

Yet, in complete view of all the horrors of this world and what we humans have done to each other, God still loved us. And God still gave us inherent dignity, through His grace and His love. In fact, God so loved the world, that He gave His only son: Jesus.[12] Indeed, “while we were still weak, … Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person … but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[13] Dying for someone or something is the greatest declaration of worth. Ultimately, we have human dignity not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of who God is and what God has done.

Our rights and dignity were therefore never dependent on our works, characteristics, or environment. We are entitled to rights and dignity with regard to one another, not because we have done anything or because we happen to be a certain way. But rather, because God has given them to us, despite our having done so much wrong, and despite anything that we could ever do, say, or be. Dignity and rights were granted to us by Someone who is so much bigger and greater than any mere creation, Someone who is fully aware of injustice and horror. And this Someone gave irrevocable dignity to the decidedly undeserved.

Because we were freely given dignity and rights by Someone greater than any human, we are therefore entitled to dignity and rights that can never be revoked by any mere human. As Archbishop Tutu states, “To trample [people’s] dignity underfoot, is not just evil as it surely must be; it is not just painful as it frequently must be for the victims of injustice and oppression. It is positively blasphemous, for it is tantamount to spitting in the face of God.”[14]

The Human Right to Food

Now, let us put these theoretical concepts into practice by digging into a discussion of food.

The international community claims that all humans have the human right to access to food. In fact, “The Right to Adequate Food” was proposed in Paragraph 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. This paragraph states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food.”[15] But again, declarations are not legally-enforceable.

So then in 1966, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) set forth “the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.”[16] This was further expanded upon in 1989, with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which recognized food- and nutrition-related rights of children to enjoy the “highest attainable standard of health.”[17] Finally, the human right to food was put into law.

But here’s the catch. While declarations are legally non-binding, conventions or covenants are only legally applicable to signatory members. This means that non-signatories can get away with not following what the ICESCR or CRC declare as law. To make matters worse, the international community, in an attempt to try to get as many signatories as possible for conventions (because image matters), has actually made these covenants so vague as to be essentially un-enforceable[18]—thus, effectively defeating the entire purpose.

As aforementioned, the lack of a solid foundation for human rights and dignity provides leeway for human rights violations and impunity for perpetrators of atrocities. Especially from a non-theistic point of view, the concept of human rights becomes a game of politics, twisting what “human dignity” entails to a definition that is most beneficial for a group or situation. This happens theoretically with covenants, and also in practice.

In practice, there have been two movements regarding the human right to food. Initially, there was an emphasis on “Food Security.” The belief was that “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”[19]

The problem with this movement was that it was very minimal. Food Security “emphasize[d] reliance on the global economy based on liberalized agricultural markets.”[20] It provided a short-term threshold to be reached, but allowed for long-term damage in communities to prevail.

People were given just enough to survive—but not enough to thrive. Not only were they given so little, but their autonomy and control over food production processes were also taken away.[21] For example, they had no control over seed production because of companies like Monsanto and other “Big Four” GMO seed companies. They were forced to leave farmland because of national polices. They were also given inadequate income for agricultural production.

If indeed human dignity were equivalent to the biblical understanding of dignity, then one can see how Food Security stripped people of it. Biblically, a society which values inherent dignity would reflect “the holiness of God not by ritual purity and cultic correctness but by the fact that when you gleaned your harvest, you left something behind for the poor, the unemployed, the marginalized one.”[22, 23] A Christian understanding of human dignity is one in which everyone is treated with the utmost respect, kindness, and compassion. With Food Security, the limited sources of sustenance in addition to the revocation of autonomy had stripped to the bare capitalist minimum any upholding of “human dignity.”

The issue with Food Security demonstrates just how problematic it is to be lacking in foundational definitions. It is then so easy to manipulate dignity to a bare-minimum standard and objectify people, viewing them as just mouths to feed or appetites to satisfy—rather than as human beings who deserve abundant lives, with respect and honor.

On the other hand, there has also been the current movement of Food Sovereignty. According to the 2007 Declaration of Nyéléni, Food Security emphasizes “The right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own … food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances.”[24] Not only does the concept of Food Sovereignty include the right to food, but it also includes the right “to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food-producing resources.”[25] This movement seeks to treat humans as those with dignity—as more than just physical clumps of atoms that metabolize food for energy.

Food Sovereignty mainly emphasizes local control that is culturally appropriate and gives power back to communities with regard to production of food. La Via Campesina (International Peasant’s Movement), founded in 1993 by farmers all over the world, is the physical embodiment of the Food Sovereignty movement. If upholding human dignity means championing people’s self-worth and treating people with respect and honor, La Via Campesina farmer Annette Desmarais nailed it on the head when she said that “it’s much bigger than how we produce food—it’s also about how we live and how we are.”[26] To solely reach the surface level of necessity is not to give dignity. To take away people’s autonomy over their own livelihoods is not to give dignity. To solely provide the threshold is not to give people the proper humanizing that people deserve.

As a Christian, my ultimate stance revolves around two things.

First. The world’s ethic is rights-based: “Is it within my right to do [this]?” However, the Christian ethic, one I wish to personally develop, is a love-based approach: “Is it loving to do this?”[27] If human beings were created in the image of God and were endowed with inherent worth, dignity, and rights because God Himself gave them to humans, then we should (and indeed, must!) treat our neighbors with love and respect. When looking at the issue of the human right to food—or really, any human right— it is vital that the ethic of love be the motivation. Otherwise, we will only strive for the minimum or the “necessary.” When in reality, love has always been about more than the bare minimum. [28] I firmly believe that if we were to take a love-based approach when implementing Human Rights, many things might not have developed into the atrocities that they eventually developed into. Violations of human rights break my heart—but I know that they break God’s more.

Lastly, as a Christian, I believe that the most important thing for human beings is not our physical hunger satiation. The human right to food is essential to treating humans as humans— our brothers and sisters as brothers and sisters. However, the most vital thing with regards to our lives is our relationship with God. God is the source of joy, justice, peace, and satisfaction, the one with whom the longings and the hunger that we feel for “something more in life” have their answer. After all, a person can have all the food (s)he desires each day, but yet may still feel starved in life. John 10:10 says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”[29] There was a reason why Jesus said he was the bread of life.


1. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights | United Nations.” Welcome to the United Nations.
2. “Core International Instruments.”
3. “Was Bertrand Russell An Atheist or Was He Really an Agnostic.” The Ber¬trand Russell Society – The Good Life is One Inspired by Love and Guided by Knowledge.
4. Russell, Bertrand. A Free Man’s Worship. Portland, Me: T.B. Mosher, 1923.
5. Tutu, Desmond M. “The first word: to be human is to be free.” In Christi¬anity and Human Rights: An Introduction, edited by John Witte and Frank S. Alexander, 1. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
6. Tutu. 2.
7. This is discussed more in The Image of God: Rights, Reason, and Order by Jeremy Waldron.
8. “Genesis 1:26.” In Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2001.
9. Tutu. 2.
10. Ibid.
11. This is also the whole idea behind giving thanks and having thanksgiv¬ing—we are indeed entitled to nothing. We give thanks knowing that we are blessed with what we have.
12. “John 3:16.” In Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2001.

13. “Romans 5:6-8.” In Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2001.
14. Tutu. 3.
15. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights | United Nations.” Welcome to the United Nations.¬man-rights/.
16. Accessed November 20, 2016.
17. Accessed November 20, 2016.
18. Another example is looking at the passing of CEDAW and the reserva¬tions that Saudi Arabia made against the most essential provisions of the document.
19. Zerbe, Noah. “Food Security Vs. Food Sovereignty.” Global Food Politics. Last modified November 30, 2012. https://globalfoodpolitics.wordpress. com/2012/11/30/food-security-vs-food-sovereignty/.
20. Ibid.
21. Accessed November 20, 2016. EN-3.pdf.
22. Tutu. 5.
23. See also Leviticus 23:22 and the book of Ruth in the Old Testament.
24. Zerbe. “Food Security Vs. Food Sovereignty.”
25. Ibid.
26. Provost, Claire. “La Via Campesina Celebrates 20 Years of Standing Up for Food Sovereignty.” The Guardian. Last modified June 17, 2013. https:// la-via-campesina-food-sovereignty.
27. Kim, Daniel. “Sermon in First Corinthians.” Sermon, Gracepoint Church, Berkeley, California, November 6, 2016.
28. See 1 John 4:8.
29. “John 10:10.” In Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2001.


Aurora Ling is a junior at UC Berkeley studying Peace and Conflict Studies. She wants to become a professor, but first and foremost prays to be molded into a minister of the gospel.

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