More than sixty years ago, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the international community adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This sets forth, among others, the right to life, equality before the law, freedom of expression, and the rights to work, social security and education. In the years since, this original declaration has been supplemented by more specific statements of rights, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
For Quakers, the concept of Human Rights is a natural extension of the belief in ‘that of God in everyone’ and of the testimony to equality. Early Friends such as George Fox and William Penn affirmed the religious equality of all people and claimed the liberty to worship freely. Freedom of conscience was central to their thinking. Conscientious objection to taking up arms in time of war is a human right, as well as a consequence of Quakers' testimony to peace and nonviolence.The right to a fair trial, and not to be tortured, springs from this deep belief that conscience should not be coerced. Freedom of conscience implies freedom of speech, which in turn implies freedom of association and assembly.
From the earliest days, there was considerable recognition of the rights of women. Quaker women, like the redoubtable Elizabeth Hooton, became ministers and were given equal standing to their male counterparts. Girls as well as boys were encouraged to get an education. As early as 1847, Anne Knight wrote a pamphlet advocating votes for women. Quaker women were prominent in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Quakers like Elizabeth Fry and William Tuke worked to establish the basic rights of prisoners and the mentally ill and to improve the conditions in which they were kept. Today, Quakers campaign to end the use of torture and to abolish the death penalty around the world.
Quakers were among the first to draw attention to racial discrimination, most notably in the campaigns against slavery. In 1816, Yorkshire Quaker, John Hoyland wrote The Gypsies, an ethnographic study of the Roma people in Britain, and called for their better treatment. In 1888, Catherine Impey founded Anti-Caste, Britain’s first anti-racist journal. In the 20th century, Quakers made significant contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States, and to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Today groups such as the Quaker UN Office’s Human Rights and Refugees Programme and the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network, work for the rights of refugees and displaced people. They also support the rights of conscientious objectors of all faiths and none.
The treaty William Penn signed with the Lenape (Deleware) tribe of Native Americans was said by Voltaire to be the only treaty “never sworn to and never broken”. Not all Quaker history with the First Nations is so unblemished, but today Quakers around the world continue to work in support of the rights of indigenous people.
Quakers were among those that recognised early on the basic rights of workers to a decent standard of living. Quaker businessmen, Joseph Rowntree and John and George Cadbury were pioneers in improving the conditions of workers in their employ.
A central principle behind Quaker work in post-war reconstruction has always been that help is offered equally to both sides in recognition of the human rights of all. For example, after the Boer War and again after the First World War, Quakers helped to alleviate suffering among defeated populations. American Friends were active in reconstruction efforts after the Korean War.
Children's rights have always mattered.Their role within a Quaker Meeting has always been recognised and respected. In the 1680s, children conducted meetings for worship while their parents were imprisoned for their faith. In the 19th Century, John Cadbury campaigned against the use of children as chimney sweeps. Today QUNO campaigns against the use of child soldiers and the detention of children.
Openly gay Quakers such as Laurence Housman, Bayard Rustin and Harvey Gilman have worked to change social attitudes towards homosexuality. In 1963, British Quakers published ‘Towards a Quaker View of Sex.’ Its authors wrote: “Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual, and therefore we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse.” Many (though not all) Yearly Meetings now endorse same-sex marriage within their Meetings for Worship.
The issue of human rights has touched and continues to touch almost every aspect of Quaker witness.