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  • Buddhism and the Idea of Human Rights:Resonances and Dissonances1
  • Perry Schmidt-Leukel

In 1991 L.P.N. Perera, Professor of Pāli and Buddhist Studies in Sri Lanka, published a Buddhist commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this commentary Perera tries to show that, in the Pāli canon, i.e. the canonical scripture of Theravāda Buddhism, for every single article of the Human Rights Declaration a substantial parallel or at least a statement with a similar tendency can be found. Indeed, says Perera, Article 1, which affirms the dignity and rights of all humans, "is in complete accord with Buddhist thought, and may be said to be nothing new to Buddhism in conception" (Perera 1991:21). In contrast, the Buddhist Peter Junger, Professor of Law at the University of Cleveland, Ohio, judged in 1995 that

. . . though followers of Buddhist traditions do value most, if not all, of the interests underlying the rhetoric of human rights, they may not have much use for the label itself, which is, after all, a product of the traditions of Western Europe and the parochial histories of that region.

(Junger 1998: 56)

Junger goes on to say that "the concept of human rights is not likely to be useful in...following the Buddha Dharma" (Junger 1998: 55).

Thus Perera and Junger agree that the content of the various human rights is acceptable for Buddhists. However, they disagree strongly in their evaluation of the idea of human rights in itself. In this respect Damien Keown has rightly argued that the crucial question on 'Buddhism and Human Rights' is not so much whether Buddhism can accept any particular human right but rather whether the idea of human rights as such can find a philosophical justification within the "overall Buddhist vision of individual and social good" (Keown 1998: 24).

It is this problem that I would like to pursue in this paper. In the first part I will sketch some basic characteristics of the idea of human rights. In the second part I will point out what resonances this idea finds in Buddhism or by which Buddhist concepts the human rights idea can be justified. And finally, in the third part, I will deal [End Page 33] with the question of potential dissonances between the idea of human rights and Buddhist concepts.

On the Nature of Human Rights

With the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the various subsequent human rights conventions the rights of individuals were for the first time inscribed into international law, which had previously recognised only collectives as legal subjects. By formulating universal rights as valid for every individual human being regardless of race, colour, sex, religion, birth, etc. the Universal Declaration points to the most important feature of the idea of human rights: the protection of the individual or, to be more precise, the protection of the individual against powerful institutions of the state, society, religion or others. It is individual self-determination and free agency that are protected through human rights. Human rights define the minimum of what is necessary in order to guarantee the freedom of individual agency and the freedom of self-determination. By the definition of inalienable rights,2 the idea of human rights sets limits to those collectives and institutions in which we usually live, limits which for the sake of the basic liberty of the individual are not to be transgressed. Michael Ignatieff summarises this understanding of human rights with the words: "rights exist to protect individuals" (Ignatieff 2001: 67), and "they are worth having only if they can be enforced against institutions like the family, the state, and the church" (Ignatieff 2001: 66f.). Therefore "moral individualism" is "the core of the Universal Declaration" (Ignatieff 2001: 66).

It is true that the further development of the human rights debate, particularly within the context of the United Nations, has led to an extension of the idea of human rights to collective rights and collective legal entities by including among human rights, for example, a nations' right to self-determination and the right to peace and the right to development. However, in my opinion it would be highly...


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