Justice, Human Rights Violations and the Innocent
It’s an undeniable fact that that this world is filled with injustices of every conceivable kind. From ethnic cleansing to wrongful conviction and imprisonment; from theft of retirement funds to the disadvantaging of the poor; from corruption and failing government to female genital mutilation and child soldiers; the list is long and injustice touches everyone at some point in life. Who has not known of or experienced unfair treatment?
Take the seventeen people having served time on death row in the U.S. who are now free due to the advent of DNA testing. According to the New York based Innocence Project, more than 270 people have been liberated in this way in 34 U.S. states after years of wrongful imprisonment.
Then there is the injustice of the death of other innocents. The Nazi bombing of Britain killed an estimated 40,000 civilians between September 1940 and May 1941 – about half of them in London. The well-known 1945 Allied firebombing of the German city of Dresden killed more than 22,000 civilians -- men, women and children. Later that year the pleas of scientists, including Albert Einstein, to spare innocent Japanese civilians went unheeded and the U.S. unleashed two atomic weapons immediately killing 80,000 in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki, with tens of thousands more dying from injuries and radiation related illnesses. Of course, these numbers are but a small fragment of all the innocent deaths of the past century.
Jonathan Glover’s Humanity, A Moral History of the 20th Century is a chronicle of some of the worst injustices. It deals with “the psychology that made possible Hiroshima, the Nazi genocide, the Gulag, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and many other atrocities.” The psychology is of course what we cannot easily escape, because it is fundamental to human beings. But Glover is not pessimistic or despairing. He believes that “we need to look hard and clearly at some of the monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.” This is certainly the beginning of a way ahead, but can we really do it alone?
Do we have the resources within us?
Justice is about fairness, equitable treatment, impartiality, objectivity, rights –the English term is rooted in Latin “justitia” from “jus,” law or right. Underlying fairness and equity is the moral obligation to do what is right. Judicial systems have tried to develop means of ensuring fair treatment and imposing appropriate penalties on those proven to have abused others and done wrong. What such systems have never been able to eradicate is human error, corruption or the downward pull of human nature. Despite best intentions, injustice remains potential in all our attempts at fairness.
According to the 2011 annual report of the International Commission of Jurists, “Despite the fact that 160 States are parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and should therefore have incorporated its provisions into domestic law and provide judicial remedies to individuals alleging a violation of their rights, victims continue to face tremendous difficulties in accessing justice.”
The reason that societies have such problems is that justice and righteousness (right thinking and living) are not natural to the human sphere. These godly characteristics may be practiced individually now and will ultimately become the basis of all society. Injustice will give way to justice when righteousness becomes the standard for all behavior. The prophet Isaiah knew this well. Speaking of a future godly global ruler, he said, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:7; see also 16:5)
This is understood to be a reference to the coming of the Messiah. Yet Christ did not fulfill these aspects of his prophesied role when he came in the first century. This is for a future time when universal justice will become reality. As Matthew wrote about Jesus in his gospel, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles (the nations)” (Matthew 12:18). This is also a quote from Isaiah, where he shows that the Messiah will be persistent in his pursuit of fairness and equity for all -- “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (Isaiah 42:4).