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‘Dignity’ is up for discussion these days, socially, politically, morally, globally, a broad dialog on a word which is, well, ambiguous at best. What it means, how it has been defined over our human history, applied and written into constitutions and declarations, certainly has put the term at center stage in the world forum, but for me and many others, it remains an unavoidable moving target we aim at, hoping to hit, but often times miss – completely.

We believe most sincerely and with passionate convictions, that dignity exists, partly because if someone tries to steal it, rob us of it, or damage it in any way shape or form, we fight for it, knowing as least for that moment, we must “keep our dignity”, as if we could neatly place it in an empty mayonnaise jar, claimed for later redemption, safe with the lid screwed tight.

The definitions below help us understand this nebulous moving target, and serves perhaps as a stepping stone, like shaky rocks in our emerging foundation of dignity defined,  and an inspiration to its’ birth as a visual voice.

Dignity Defined

Dig-ni-ty : 1) the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.[1]

Dignity is a term used in moral, ethical, and political discussions to signify that a being has an innate right to respect and ethical treatment[2]

Dignity A person’s high standing among others: good name, good report, honor, prestige, reputation, repute, respect, status. (respect/contempt/standing).[3]

Dignity Documents

Through much of the 20th Century, dignity appeared in assorted writings as a reason for peacemaking and for promoting human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, states:

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Whereas, for instance, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) names dignity as one justification for human rights among others, the two UN Covenants on Rights (1966) ground human rights solely on dignity.

Yet in these documents human dignity is neither defined nor justified.

It remains unclear how exactly dignity grounds rights. The UN documents state that dignity is an “inherent property”, because of which we can make claims upon others. In conceiving dignity, people may define dignity as “absolute inner value,” and to “treat others always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” seems to encapsulate what it means to respect the dignity of others.[4]

Subsequent proclamations also invoke dignity in the call for more rights. For example, the American Convention on Human Rights (1969), article 11(1), proclaims, “Everyone has the right to have his honor respected and his dignity recognized.” The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (1981), art. 5, insists, “Every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being.” All the international proclamations leave dignity undefined.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, dignity was a reason to curtail human rights. Clergy and laity invoked dignity to explain their agreement with resolutions that were being approved by the United Nations. Those resolutions bid all nations to restrict rights by imposing legal sanctions upon blasphemy (defamation of religion) and upon all conduct that a religious person might find offensive. One archbishop favored legal sanctions because, he said, it is “the manipulation and defamation of religion which threatens human dignity, rights, peace and security.” One law professor hoped “the law against defamation of religions may be constructed in a way that does not abridge legitimate speech including artistic freedom and yet protects the dignity of religion.”

On 26 March 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a non-binding resolution which states,

defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence.”[5]

Universal Declaration of Rights for Children

World Center of Compassion for Children/Betty Williams

We, the Children of the World, assert our inalienable right to be heard and to have a political voice at the United Nations and at the highest levels of governments worldwide.

We, the Children of the World, must live with justice, with peace and freedom, but above all, with the dignity we deserve.

Other documents worth mentioning and of some importance are;

  • Earth Charter
  • United Nations Declaration of Rights for the Child

Dignity, at least the word, has made itself present in almost every important document about human rights in the last 200 years. However, the definition, or what it ‘is’ has not been apparent or clearly explained in any of those significant documents. This makes it difficult to understand how it is to be implemented in the greater society, and even more difficult to recognize what to do when these violations of dignity are noticed, documented, and discussed.

Hence, the need to revisit, recognize, redefine, and realize what dignity means to us, in the world community now, today. Bring the ‘visual voice’ to a subject that obviously is near and dear to our humanity and core to our definition of what a society consists of, or should ultimately become, one based on the preservation of everyone’s dignity, and embracing a standardized set of human rights. It fits well in any documents that begin to address basic human rights, but no one, it seems has taken the time to reflect and define what that means, or what that looks like in our social structure. Dignity remains, for me, somewhat elusive. A hard to pin down concept chiseled quite deeply in our human rock.


[1] Merriam-Websters Dictionary and Thesaurus, page 296, paperback

[2] Wikipedia, Dignity defined

[3] Thesaurus, online; http://www.dictionary.com

[4] Paraphrased; http://www.allacademic.com/meta

[5] Wikipedia; Dignity Defined, in proclamations

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