Human Rights

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Human Rights are those basic rights which, when afforded by one person to another, indicate a belief in the other's full humanity. Where a person or group denies these basic rights to others, that denial indicates a belief that the others are less than human.

The most basic human rights are the rights to life, self-determination, and personal security. Self-determination means deciding, within reasonable limits, where one will live, how one will support oneself, and with whom one will associate. Personal security means physical safety from violence. Oppression is the taking away of any of these rights. Oppression becomes slavery where it includes taking from others the fruit of their labors. In industrialized capitalist societies individual liberty is the key criterion of human rights. In industrialized socialist societies the key is the right to social participation. For poor, non-industrialized societies the key is a right to survival and liberation from oppression by industrialized societies.

When Anabaptists claimed the right to religious self-determination it led to brutal oppression. As toleration for Anabaptists increased, they began to lead lives of quiet prosperity. Concern for individual poor people, rather than concern for oppressive structures which created poverty, was an interest of Anabaptists. Separation of church and state, which would give Anabaptists religious freedom, was the only systemic human rights issue which they addressed with any concentration.

Anabaptist groups began to work for privileges for themselves, and have been successful in many places. Special privileges were granted to Mennonites by Catherine the Great of Russia to induce them to migrate to the Ukraine. Mennonites have also obtained special privileges in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Bolivia, Paraguay, Belize (British Honduras), and other places. Ethnic European Mennonites have colonized lands freshly taken from native peoples. Concern for displaced native peoples has been real among these Mennonites, but has not extended to giving up special privileges.

Mennonites participated to some extent in the effort to abolish slavery in the United States, and have, since World War II, been active in helping to reclaim human rights for native peoples and mentally and physically handicapped persons (disabilities). Mennonites have been active in working for peace in many ways, and have begun to focus more on restoration of justice as a way to peace. Victim-offender Reconciliation Program is a method by which Mennonites have worked to bring peace between individuals by showing victims and offenders how to recognize each other's full humanity.

Mennonites have, along with the rest of the world, discovered the issue of human rights on a broad scale only since World War II. The advent of mass communications has allowed all to understand more clearly how oppression breeds war, and how the denial of human rights leads to violence as the poor and powerless seek to be heard by the rich and powerful. Mennonite efforts on behalf of the oppressed around the world recognize increasingly that restoration of human rights is part of the ministry of reconciliation given by God to those who believe the message of salvation.


Crahan, Margaret E., ed., Human Rights and Basic Needs in the Americas. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press 1982.

Epp, Frank H. Human Rights and Christian Responsibility. Winnipeg, MB: MCC [Canada], n.d.

Evans, Robert A. and Alice Frazer Evans. Human Rights: a Dialogue Between the First and Third Worlds. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1983.

Hennelly, Alfred, S.J. and John Langan, S.J., eds. Human Rights in the Americas: the Struggle for Consensus. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown U. Press, 1982.

Peachey, Urbane, ed. Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978. Akron, PA: MCC, 1980.

Additional Information

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Author(s) Duane Ruth-Heffelbower
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Ruth-Heffelbower, Duane. "Human Rights." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 12 Apr 2024.

APA style

Ruth-Heffelbower, Duane. (1989). Human Rights. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 398-399. All rights reserved.

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