The Catholic University of America

April 20, 2011

Norwegian Political Scientist Addresses Human Rights

 
  President Garvey visits with Professor Jaane Haaland Matlary before the lecture. At right is Ambassador Wegger Chr. Strommen, ambassador of Norway to the U.S.

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In an April 19 lecture on human rights, titled “When Might Becomes Human Right,” Janne Haaland Matlary, professor of international politics at the University of Oslo, reflected on how the interplay of intellect and virtue defines and promotes human rights.

In exploring the meaning of human rights, Matlary relied on her philosophy studies. Human rights determine the basic freedoms to which all people are entitled, she posited. Human rights are proclaimed, not adopted, and human dignity is the basis for them. Politicians and judges cannot necessarily be relied upon in determining what is just and unjust, because they can be swayed by the sentiments of the majority, Matlary said.

“There is no perfect solution to say ‘Let the judges decide’ or ‘Let the politicians decide,’ ” she said. “Ultimately, it is WE that must use reason [to decide]."

Aristotle taught that humans are different from animals because of their ability to reason, she said. Through reasoning, they can determine right from wrong.

During her lecture, Matlary devoted a good deal of attention to the evolution of the concept of human rights in the 20th century. Human rights became part of international law in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims a high standard for achieving justice and peace in the world. The problem with meeting this standard, according to Matlary, was that the communist regimes of the U.S.S.R. and its satellite states were unwilling to subordinate their totalitarian rule to human rights.

The situation changed in the 1990s with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. The Charter of Paris for a New Europe, signed by Canada, the United States and most of Europe including Russia, elevated human rights to the same level as of state sovereignty.

 
Matlary delivers the lecture.

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While today human rights courts exist in the European Union, Matlary suggested that just as society cannot rely on politicians to define human rights, so too it cannot rely solely on courts.

In a recent case regarding the placement of crucifixes in classrooms in Italy, a higher court overturned a decision by a lower court — within the span of a year — that had ruled these crucifixes to be in violation of a non-Christian student’s religious freedom. How serious are the rulings of these courts if they are so susceptible to being overturned, Matlary asked.

While acknowledging the good that can come out of courts, Matlary questioned “How can we distinguish — if at all — between true human rights and politics? Should judges be the ones to decide? Are they any better at deciding this than you and I?”

Returning to Aristotelian reasoning, Matlary concluded that it is not enough to rely simply on the human ability to reason; society must rely on reason grounded in virtue that does not merely echo the sentiments of the majority, but is focused instead on rights that are inherent, inalienable, and apolitical.

A convert to Catholicism 29 years ago, Matlary was deputy foreign minister of Norway from 1997 to 2000. She is a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

This lecture was part of a series of events tied to President John Garvey’s inaugural year theme, “Intellect and Virtue: The Idea of a Catholic University.”

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