Human Rights and the Discovery of Empathy

In my first year of humanitarian work I was called on to help start up a program in Kosovo after the end of that bloody conflict. Ethnic cleansing they called it, genocide without the murder I suppose. I was 21 or 22, wet behind the ears – young and idealistic. I was going to change the world! I went into Kosovo walking alongside the new UN government, setting up shop in Prisren as we all began to work with the people who were returning in rivers from Albania and Macedonia to help winterize their homes for the coming frigid Kosovar winters and to get winter wheat planted before the earth became frozen and hard; a crop to begin that painful process of recovery.

From there, after the program was on its way, I was sent into the Democratic Republic of the Congo – Goma specifically and Bukavu where the second civil war had just started. Who knew it was going to be the worst war since WWII. Africa’s world war. I was still green – and plunged from one crisis to the next, literally flying from Tirana in to Kigali and driving across the border into Goma – I was struck by the difference between these two conflicts.

Kosovo – a population of maybe two million. The response? 35,000 NATO soldiers; every NGO on the planet (including “Clowns Without Borders” – its nice to know Clowns also have no borders); every UN agency. The work divided up into quadrants, funds flowing in for relief work which were staggering in their scope. Then Congo – I was there even before the incompetent peacekeepers. Uruguayans setting up prostitution rings, but this was before then. The sound of the silence of Congo’s civil war was deafening. In Kosovo we’d had the beating of helicopters and the crunch of friendly tanks and the huge parties with hundreds of foreigners who had come to help the little blond refugees. In Congo? A few haggard aid workers chain smoking and drinking themselves into early graves.

There has been much written on this of course, donor fatigue and the like. But all the analysis comes down to one word – empathy. With whom we identify has a great role in how we react to the evils we see around us.

I just finished reading Lynn Hunt’s well-written book “Inventing Human Rights”. First what it is not, it is not a story about westerners inventing human rights. Human rights – by their very “self-evident” nature have always existed; they weren’t dreamt up in a bar in Oxford or Geneva. The book might better be called “Re-discovering Human Rights” but I’d probably go with a different title – “Human Rights and the Discovery of Empathy”. Because that’s what this book is about. It is a well-researched and well-written account of how, coming out of the renaissance and the enlightenment and the industrial revolution people in western Europe began to rediscover their humanity, but more importantly the humanity of others, through the process of empathizing. The author chooses an interesting entry into this topic, the beginning of novel-writing in Europe. And how reading novels like Clarissa helped revolutionize the way people thought about other people by putting themselves in others’ shoes – in the abstract. The book then goes into the epic fights (legislative and in public opinion) against torture; on writing the different declarations which we hold now almost for granted; the pitched battle against slavery – as step by step humans rediscovered why we are different, and above the animals. Lynn avoids the religious arguments into the “Truths we hold self-evident” or the “Laws of God written on the hearts of men” or the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” – which is why the book is misnamed. Nevertheless as one in an endless series of tomes to help us figure out how we saved ourselves as a species from the rack and debtors prisons and enslavement – “Inventing Human Rights” belongs alongside others such as “Liberalism: The Life of an Idea” and “The Triumph of Liberty” to lead us in understanding the nature – and responsibility – of our humanity.

The case that the greatest piece of technological advancement in history was Gutenberg’s press is one that could be well-argued using this book; that is when everything started changing in the west – and the world.

On a personal note – I am very glad she started with making the case for fiction (a novel), and I feel somewhat vindicated for the sneers I receive in choosing literary fiction as my avenue for expression. There are too many people today who arrogantly and ignorantly announce to the world “I don’t read fiction” – probably not even knowing what they’re saying. Empathy – it is what I try to do with my fiction, to connect people to situations that they probably don’t think of. “I, Charles, From the Camps” the first person account of a black man from a refugee camp who becomes an LRA soldier in Uganda.

“Lords of Misrule” about a Tuareg boy who joins jihad.

But I digress. Read Lynn Hunt’s excellent book, and then continue on to the others I recommend and keep learning. We are losing our humanity – social media and hate are taking it from us – lets rediscover our humanity, and with it the rights not of ourselves but of others.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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10 Responses to Human Rights and the Discovery of Empathy

  1. graphicgrub says:

    How about reviewing Pacific Viking? A powerful story coming out in paperback soon. I think you could deal with this demanding book. Contact me, if you are interested


    • I don’t see it on Amazon, I’m always up for a good book – but I do like literary fiction, my reviews of pop fiction aren’t usually very good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • graphicgrub says:

        I have got a literary, good book for you. How about reviewing it? I can send/email it to you. The paperback is coming up in a few weeks/possibly I could send, but an older version ebook I can send by email. I am looking for reviews in late August, early September.


      • I would be willing, I don’t really like to read e-books. If you want to mail me a physical copy I’ll review on Amazon, Goodreads and my blog. you can email me at and I’ll send you my address.


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