Dignity comes up very often when speaking of Human Rights, in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), when there is a related court case or a UN Human Rights resolution.
Why is the concept of ‘dignity’ so central to Human Rights?
Because we’re worth it
Dignity literally means – “The state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect.” Human beings are regarded as the supreme creature and the most rational animals – a status which makes us worthy of dignity. It is this rational nature that distinguishes us from other animals and which makes us ‘people’ and not ‘things’. The Indian Constitution also classifies the right to live a dignified life as a fundamental right emphasizing its importance. We operate with the belief that human beings are an intelligent and civilized species, capable of reason and consciousness and so know the difference between right and wrong. Therefore, we must be treated as such. Each and every human has value and must be free from exploitation, slavery or manipulation to protect his/her dignity.
Because we deserve it
Our right to live a dignified life should be unalienable. All humans are born with dignity and no human, even if he is a sick or helpless patient, should not be subject to degrading, inhuman and cruel treatment which deprives him his right to live a dignified life. It is dignity which ensures that if a person cannot take care of himself, his hygiene, comfort level and health is taken care of. In the absence of this, he is robbed of his dignity.
That’s why the Dr. Saibaba case is one of the most criticised examples of a human right violation in an Indian prison. Saibaba, an alleged Maoist and a Delhi professor, who is 90% disabled, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a session court in Maharashtra. Despite facing multiple health problems, the jail authorities refused to supply life-saving medicines or shift him to a hospital for treatment. No prisoner deserves to be robbed his right to live a dignified life like he was.
This helplessness is not always medical, it can also be political. That’s the reason why countries like the US, India and Myanmar are globally criticised for grossly violating the human rights of refugees.
Dignity ensures disabled patients’ right to be lifted in an appropriate manner by their caretakers; homosexuals’ right to equal treatment in tenancy agreements; or asylum seeker’ right to receive asylum support and to be protected against destitution – everyone ‘deserves’ to be treated with dignity.
Because we’re all different
Every human, to live a dignified life, should be able to explore their uniqueness whether its in form of their sexuality, religion or choice food, clothing etc. No person should be forced to follow a particular religion or culture against their wish or forced to change their sexual orientation. Instances like these deprive them of dignity. With recent incidents of religious intolerance, communal riots and forced conversion the dignity of people has been taking a toll. For instance, thousands of Christians in Orissa are forced to denounce their religion and to convert to Hinduism.
Similarly, Section 377, criminalizes gay sex, which prevents people from exploring their sexuality. Going against this law would mean that person would be looked down upon or discriminated for preserving his individuality. Discriminating a person on the basis of their sexual orientation is deeply offensive to their dignity and self-worth of an individual, noted the Supreme Court in their landmark verdict to declare freedom of sexual orientation as a fundamental right.
Because we’re all the same:
We are all equal before the law, which makes equality an integral part of human rights and dignity. To live a dignified life, all humans should be treated equally without any discrimination. So taking this into account, there should be equality between men and women (gender equality), upper class and lower class (social equality), equality in public areas, employment etc. Thus, the state has incorporated various protective measures like reservation in universities and jobs to secure the life of dignity of the Dalits and protect their right to education and employment.
Because everything isn’t black and white
UDHR does not cover everything pertaining to human rights. So, that’s when we use dignity as an umbrella to cover those grey areas. It is dignity that helps us know whether a person’s human rights have been infringed or no. Like we know when someone is tortured or treated inhumanly, we know their dignity is downplayed and thus a threat to their human rights. Think of this situation- sanitation or open defecation has no mention in the human rights or right to health. But we know that open defecation risks a person’s dignity, especially that of a woman. So, that’s how we know that having a toilet in every home is a human right so that their dignity is protected.