Civil Rights vs. Human Rights
The President currently finds himself mired in yet another attempt to fulfill a campaign promise, this time over how to close the Guantanamo Bay holding facility. Amidst all the controversy of whether or not to close the prison, where to move the prisoners, and how they should be tried, there has been one phrase in particular that stands out, or should stand out, for us Christians: a mention of the prisoners’ “rights.” This naturally raises the question as to what rights are being referred to. A closer investigation demonstrates that, on many occasions, we don’t seem able to distinguish between a person’s civil rights and their human rights. In his wonderful book, Healing for a Broken World, Steve Monsma articulates the difference between civil and human rights as the following:
“Civil rights are those that are spelled out and protected by a specific government and its constitution and other laws. They are enforceable in courts of law. Human rights are God-given. They are rooted in all human beings having been created in the image of almighty God himself…No government gives us our human rights; no government can take them away.”
So when we speak of an individual’s “rights,” we must first clarify which field we are playing on. Civil rights are byproducts of a governing body, presumably with the consent of the governed (i.e. voting, due process, freedom of speech, etc.). Human rights are the result of every man, woman and child being created in the image of God, and naturally carry with them a greater sense of importance (i.e. life, freedom, personal choices, etc.). Naturally, the Bible has very little to say directly about one’s civil rights, but addresses the concept of human rights throughout. It may be a bit of a stretch, but one could argue that Christians should therefore be much more enraged over human rights violations than infringements on one’s civil rights. That is not to say that civil rights are unimportant, but rather that a jury trial pales in comparison to torture.
Let us now attempt to make this information relevant to our current situation. As human beings, created in the image of God, the human rights of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay must be protected. Torture and wrongful imprisonment are the most egregious violations, and should never be excused. However, as enemy combatants, the detainees are not endowed with the same set of civil rights that we as American citizens are. There is no constitutional basis for trying these prisoners in the American judicial system, nor is their a reason to provide jury trials instead of a military tribunal. Therefore, if Believers are going to advocate for the “rights” of these prisoners, it is much more important to advocate for their God-given human rights, not a state-granted set of civil rights.
One potential caveat to our discussion is the fact that civil rights violations can indeed become human rights violations (one thinks of the heroic civil rights struggle of the 1960s). But, for our current situation, that should be seen simply as an encouragement to engage this issue thoughtfully and biblically, not as evidence that terrorists should be tried on U.S. soil.