Truly natural rights would not be subject to cancellation by governments, armies or circumstances, that’s how you know ours are just arbitrary.
We live in interesting times when it comes to rights. Developments around the world and here in the United States are dramatically changing what people can expect for the future of those aspects of freedom that we may take for granted, or even think of as “natural.” Are arbitrary rights natural, however, when they can clearly be so easily violated, altered, granted, or taken away by (mostly) governments that may or may not fairly represent you?
During Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings, some senators’ questions (rants, really) revealed just how much the “conservative” right would love to claw back seemingly arbitrary rights that, until then, most Americans considered it settled law. Some of us have speculated that culture war activists are aiming not only to Roe vs. Wade and Oberfelfell v Hodgesthe case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, but also Griswold vs. Connecticut, which guaranteed married couples the right to use contraceptives. And so they have.
However, did anyone outside of the right-wing foul swamp expect Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) to hang around? Love against Virginia in the fight against KBJ, completely calling into question the future of legal interracial marriage? If the Constitution does not, in fact, imply a right to privacy, once considered inherent in the Fourth Amendment guarantee of security in our home and belongings and against unreasonable search and seizure, the Third Amendment prohibition to quarter troops and the admission of the ninth we have other rights which are not necessarily enumerated, then anything beyond the strict legal minimum given to us in 1791 is an arbitrary right and must be considered subject to the ideological whims of luminaries such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and Madison Cawthorn. It should alarm you more that the 2A mob is wary of President Biden, because those people might actually do something about it, unlike Scranton Joe.
If there are dark days ahead in the United States, that darkness has already covered Ukraine and its Russian invaders. Putin’s withdrawal of Russian forces from the vicinity of kyiv leaves behind not only deliberately destroyed homes, a war crime in itself, but also heaps of tangled and tortured Ukrainian corpses. Executed civilians were thrown into officially approved mass graves (the technical standard for digging and maintaining them has taken effect February 1, 2022), mutilated teenagers with their ears severed and teeth extracted, left to rot in a basement in Bucha, and individual bodies on the street, trapped with landmines so that those who recovered them for a burial decent would catch the shrapnel in their flesh. Rights are not a concept that the Russian attackers observe clearly.
To cover up its abuses in Ukraine, the Russian government is also actively limiting the rights of its own citizens. Going back to the old Soviet playbook, criticizing the ongoing invasion, Russian Armed Forces, or even claiming Ukraine is a sovereign country can land you a fine or jail time, denounced by a population over more paranoid. The students save the teachers for later betrayal. The guests report the conversations from the next table. Carrying a protest sign that simply displayed eight asterisks resulted in a run-in with the law for a Russian man. (The Russian phrase “Нет войне,” or “No to war,” has eight letters.) Last Friday, Russia forced Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and several other NGOs to close their offices. Arbitrary rights can be removed. To be observed doing so is embarrassing.
However, all is not lost, and in some places things are getting better.
Arbitrary rights can be lost, but the beautiful thing is that they can also be granted. In February, a 7-2 court decision upheld that, at least in Ecuador, individual wild animals have constitutional rights. The case involved Estrellita, a woolly monkey who was illegally taken from the wild when she was one month old and adopted by a librarian and her family. Estrellita learned to communicate with them through sound and gestures, and picked up the behaviors of the family. Eighteen years later, she was seized by authorities and placed in a zoo, where she soon died suddenly.
Before learning of Estrellita’s death, the librarian called for the monkey’s return, citing her likely distress at being stolen from familiar and friendly surroundings and dumped in a zoo with strangers and arguing it was a violation of Estrellita’s rights. The Court ruled that Estrellita’s rights had indeed been violated, both by the authorities who took her away and by the family who stole her from the wild.
The idea that nature has inherent rights is less bizarre internationally and in Indigenous communities than it is in the industrialized West. Earlier this year, Tsuladxʷ (Salmon) sued the City of Seattle in the Sauk-Suiattle Tribal Court System for recognition of their right to “exist, thrive and regenerate.” The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the fish species by the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe over hydroelectric dams the city has built on the Skagit River over the past century or so, with no way for the salmon to move upstream .
It may seem counter-intuitive for the tribe to fight for what is perceived to be an environmentally friendly “green” source of energy that provides about 20% of the city’s electricity with less carbon impact than burning fossil fuels. However, how environmentally friendly is it to exclude salmon from their traditional habitat just to power industrial gadgets? Rights, biodiversity and ecosystems are absolutely interconnected, and hurting one hurts them all. In October 2020, the UN Human Rights Council voted to approve a non-binding resolution recognizing a “safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right”, against the UK’s strong objection. United and abstaining from China, Japan, India and, unsurprisingly, Russia.
A world that does not recognize nature’s right to exist will not stop destroying natural systems for human profit and convenience. Destabilized and overburdened ecosystems then become the cause of ever-increasing disasters, migrations, famines and suffering, nullifying our own arbitrary rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and other unlisted here. Authoritarian regimes ironically find fertile ground in chaos, whether they seek to roll back hard-won civil rights or invade and conquer new territories to rule in misery. If there is hope, it is in the rights of nature, even more than in the confirmation of a progressive justice condemned to spend a large part of its SCOTUS career writing strong dissents.
Related: The Manoomin case is a compelling legal first