One would think that nearly five years after the end of the Cold War and almost 50 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of basic human rights of people around the world would be safe and secure.

Wrong. The right to enjoy basic freedoms is threatened on at least two fronts, and the church can and should play a critical part in each. The primary threat comes from those who would have us believe that basic rights such as free speech and freedom of conscience are not universal but are culturally relative Western inventions. It is revealing that the most vigorous exponents of the relativity of human rights are what the Puebla Institute has called a "rogues' gallery of despotic" regimes: China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, and the like.

At the United Nations-sponsored 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights, these regimes promoted the Bangkok Declaration. This pernicious document argued that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 should be reformulated to accommodate cultural, religious, and region particularities that civil and political rights can be deferred until economic development has been achieved. Some offered a strong response to this relativist argument. Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka observed, "All prisons are made of bricks and molar and iron spikes and very often beatings and electric shocks. I don't think there's any cultural definition in these various means of dehumanizing our fellow beings."

A second problem in defending university human rights has been the tendency to treat nearly every social good as a "right." While aspirations to clean driving water, suitable housing, and a decent job are important, it does not help to jumble them together with demands ...

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