I received a reader email from Iran in the last few weeks. I’ve been swamped and hadn’t had a chance to respond until now. I’m still swamped, catching up, but I thought it might be fun to post the question and my reply here. These responses were quickly drafted, with some thought but little editing. <Disclaimer…> lol.
Dear Eric Thomas Weber
I’m [name omitted] from Iran.We are Iranian people who we love peace and other culture we love other people in every point of earth.You know my country is a victim of mistaken policies in 8 years ago but we(people of Iran) are not bad.Politician of united state of America like Mr President Barak Obama say that the human right situation in Iran is not good.I want to know that what is meaning the human rights?
Best Regards, [name omitted]
While I feel bad about having little time to answer [name omitted], I felt worse about how long it had taken for me to get to his email (BTW, that’s my mug on the front page of The Tehran Times from this past July – Pretty cool). So, here’s my rough and quick reply:
Hi [name omitted],
I apologize for the long delay before my reply… [explanation omitted]. To answer your question, human rights are generally considered responsibilities on the part of a government towards its people. The legitimacy of a government depends upon its respect for its people and their rights. Among the kinds of rights that Americans find sadly infringed upon in Iran are the freedom of expression and of the press. Governments cannot be wise and just without knowing about how their people are affected. When free expression is stifled, when leaders do not allow criticism of their decisions, the government intentionally fails to draw its judgments on the greatest pool of information available. Therefore, one of the cornerstones of just governments on this view is the right to criticize any public official. Here is an example of what I mean:
I think it is fair to say that the United States, and most every nation, falls short of perfect justice. There are some things that we take to be fundamental, however. Freedom to raise one’s concerns as a citizen is vital as perhaps (or one of) the most basic human right(s).
That’s how I think about the question you’ve asked me. Again, I apologize for the delay in my reply. Happy new year to you and your family,
Now that I’ve sent that message, I’m reminded of Michael Ignatieff‘s suggestion that freedom of movement might possibly be considered more fundamental than speech. I see his point with respect to cases of ethnic cleansing.