Why We Call Them Human Rights

Original Article

Rights, properly understood, are moral entitlements embodied in law to protect all people. They are not earned: Rights come as part of the package of being a member of the human race. This principle was most eloquently enunciated in the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that we are all created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This doctrine of human exceptionalism has been under assault in recent decades from many quarters. For example, many bioethicists assert that being human alone does not convey moral value, rather an individual must exhibit “relevant” cognitive capacities to claim the rights to life and bodily integrity. Animal rights ideology similarly denies the intrinsic value of being human, claiming that we and animals are moral equals based on our common capacity to feel pain, a concept known as “painience.”

These radical agendas have now been overtaken by an extreme environmentalism that seeks to—and this is not a parody—grant equal rights to nature. Yes, nature; literally and explicitly. “Nature rights” have just been embodied as the highest law of the land in Ecuador’s newly ratified constitution pushed by the country’s hard-leftist president, Rafael Correa, an acolyte of Hugo Chávez.

The new Ecuadorian constitution reads:

Persons and people have the fundamental rights guaranteed in this Constitution and in the international human rights instruments. Nature is subject to those rights given by this Constitution and Law.

What does this co-equal legal status between humans and nature mean? Article 1 states:

Nature or Pachamama [the Goddess Earth], where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.

This goes way beyond establishing strict environmental protections as a human duty. It is a self-demotion of humankind to merely one among the billions of life forms on earth—no more worthy of protection than any other aspect of the natural world.

Viruses are part of nature. So, too, are bacteria, insects, trees, weeds, and snails. These and the rest of Ecuador’s flora and fauna all now have the constitutional and legally enforceable right to exist, persist, and regenerate their vital cycles.

The potential harm to human welfare seems virtually unlimited. Take, for example, a farmer who wishes to drain a swamp to create more tillable land to better support his family. Now, the swamp has equal rights with the farmer, as do the mosquitoes, snakes, pond scum, rats, spiders, trees, and fish that reside therein.

And since draining the swamp would unquestionably destroy “nature” and prevent it from “existing” and “persisting,” one can conceive of the farmer—or miners, loggers, fishermen, and other users and developers of natural resources—being not only prevented from earning his livelihood, but perhaps even charged with oppressing nature.

The inspiration for Ecuador’s granting of rights to nature was an American extremist environmental group called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which presses to “change the status of ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being recognized as rights-bearing entities.” The constitution, moreover, explicitly empowers organizations like CELDF to enforce nature’s fundamental rights. Article 1 states:

Every person, people, community, or nationality, will be able to demand the recognition of rights for nature before the public bodies [i.e., courts, governmental agencies, etc.].

If the Ecuadorian government fails to protect the rights of the swamp (or the trees, the animals on the mineable mountain, the schools of fish, etc.), any radical environmental organization can descend on Ecuador and sue to thwart the desires of the farmer and prevent him from deciding what to do with his own land. The mind simply boggles.

The mainstream media have made no attempt to sound the alarm about the dangers of this agenda. A New York Times environmental blogger was bemused by the Ecuadorian constitution, and an editorial in the Los Angeles Times found Ecuador’s proposal to make nature the moral equal of people “intriguing.”

And it is not just in Ecuador that the international left has demonstrated its determination to devalue humankind in law and ethics. Just this year:

  • The Socialists and Greens in Spain are on the verge of granting the rights to life, liberty, and freedom from torture to great apes and devolve humans into a “community of equals” with chimpanzees and gorillas.
  • The European Court of Human Rights recently accepted a case out of Austria that appeals a ruling that refused to declare chimpanzees legal persons.
  • Switzerland has constitutionally established the intrinsic dignity of individual plants, based on the many similarities they share with us at the molecular and cellular levels.

Some might say that Ecuador is a small country not worth much concern. But the concept of nature possessing rights seems to be spreading. The CELDF—which was only founded in 1995—brags that it is fielding calls from South Africa, Italy, Australia, and Nepal, that last of which is crafting its own leftist constitution.

Others might say that worrying about nature’s rights should take a back seat to less abstract concerns such as the financial crisis and the war on terror. But consider this: The central importance of human life is the fundamental insight undergirding Western civilization. This tenet is now under energetic, and increasingly successful, attack. If such antihumanism prevails, we won’t have to worry about nature having rights, but about human beings losing them.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.