History, recent, World Affairs

What Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Mean Today?

“What is man, that you are mindful of him, human beings that you should care for them?”

The question the Psalmist asks God is the same question philosophers have been asking one another for more than three millennia: What does it mean to be human? What makes us different from the rest of creation?

For Aristotle, the answer was man’s political, or “social,” nature. For Blaise Pascal, it was man’s intellect: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, author of the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, maintained that man’s distinguishing feature is his volition. Immanuel Kant located humanity’s uniqueness in our moral nature.

The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which turned 70 on December 10 this year, offers a different answer: to be human is to have an innate dignity that gives us an irreducible moral worth—a worth that makes all human individuals fundamentally equal to one another and distinct from other forms of life. The UDHR’s first line proudly recognizes “the inherent dignity and . . . equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” principles that are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The UDHR’s crucial claim is that the question of man’s nature is not merely academic or philosophical. It has moral consequences. Philosophers have long argued that man is distinct from animals or plants by emphasizing different aspects of his person. But the UDHR’s claim is different in asserting that a shared human nature gives us each equal moral worth. For most of human history, the notion that all humans are morally valuable was widely rejected.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the UDHR’s foundational statement—that we all share an inherent dignity that implies certain inalienable rights—will one day again fall into global disfavor. For this reason, it is imperative that each successive generation understand the values of this document. To do so, we must remember the atrocities that led to it.

The decision of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission to ground human rights in the idea of universal human dignity was not due to the philosophical force of the idea of dignity itself. As an astute essay by Remy Debes shows, the idea and terminology of dignity in intellectual history is rather amorphous. In his De Officiis (On Duties), Cicero uses dignitas to describe those holding an “honored place.”1 Such has been the case for most of dignity’s history, with the word often being used to describe the respect to which a particular kind of person—of a certain birth of rank—was entitled. In his De Oratore, Cicero uses dignitas and the related notion of gravitas to describe speech that is magisterial and weighty. It was not merely who spoke; dignity also aptly specified an aesthetic quality: i.e. persons who conducted themselves in a “dignified” manner.

This view of dignity would not change for many centuries. In Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, the crowning achievement of the European Enlightenment, the entry on Duty is an early proponent of the notion that our common nature, “endowed by [our] Creator with certain faculties,” means that we have certain moral obligations to all members of the human community:

The first absolute duty, of each man towards all others, is to harm no one… The second general, absolute duty of men is that each person must respect and treat others as naturally equal beings; that is, as beings who are as good as oneself, because this is a matter of a natural or moral equality. See Equality. The third general duty respective of men considered as members of society, is that each must contribute, as much as one can possibly do, to the utility of others.2

Immanuel Kant was the first to explicitly link man’s equal nature and moral obligations to our innate dignity.3 He claimed that all persons possess dignity by virtue of being moral beings—and humans alone are moral. More importantly, he asserted that our dignity has certain ethical implications. It is man’s “transcendent kernel” that endows all humans with unconditional, intrinsic worth, which is why in Kant’s famous categorical imperative people must be treated as ends in themselves, and never merely as means to ends.

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity… but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is, dignity. Now, morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.4

It is perhaps with this tradition in mind that the UDHR uses humanity’s universal dignity to condemn the senseless loss of human life the world had so painfully endured (there is no scholarly consensus regarding why the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission chose to ground human rights in human dignity).

More important than the abstract philosophical reasoning, however, was the practical, lived experience of people in the mid-twentieth century. Humanity had just been through one of the bloodiest half-centuries in human history: two disastrous World Wars, the first use of nuclear weapons (on civilians, no less), the Rape of Nanking, the Russian Gulags, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust—which together caused the deaths of more than 100 million human beings—and other, some perhaps still unknown, atrocities. East to West, North to South, the world had been devastated by humankind’s brutality against itself.

The four decades leading up to 1948 confronted those still alive with humanity’s seemingly limitless capacity for evil. It seemed to the survivors that civilization had been resting on a narrow precipice, inches away from complete annihilation. They immediately set about determining how to move humanity further away from such a ledge, and they soon realized that any solution would require recognition of the importance of our irreducible worth as persons. They understood what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would so eloquently describe 25 years later in The Gulag Archipelago: the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. Atrocities can be and were perpetrated by people not so different from us.

With the recent passing of George H.W. Bush, we are reminded that as we lose those who lived through those dark moments—the Greatest Generation who saw the evil of which humanity is capable—we become more nonchalant about concepts such as human dignity. Yet it is important to keep humanity’s capacity for evil salient to avoid losing sight of the need to respect everyone’s inherent worth. Philosophical contemplation is not sufficient for moral growth. Ethical development requires us to reflect on human tragedy and evil—which is why it is so important to study and remember the Holocaust and other atrocities. It is of course perfectly reasonable to disagree about how to apply the principle of human dignity to international affairs or to domestic policy questions, but—as history shows us—we dismiss it at our peril.

Human dignity matters because it takes certain options off the table: it means that we cannot casually dismiss costs to human life or wellbeing when we take decisions. Adam Smith famously observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that we do not feel the same degree of concern for those in China who suffer from an earthquake that we do for our own minor disturbances.5 As a descriptive matter, this is of course entirely true. Yet the fact that we share human dignity means that we ought not to entirely disregard the value of the lives of those who are different or distant from us.

The Book of Genesis tells of God creating man “in his own image.” This gave rise to the theological concept of imago dei—a rich and deeply-mined idea in the Judeo-Christian tradition. That man was created in the image and likeness of God separates him from the rest of life on earth, giving him a moral worth (this concept is also found in Sufism). It is likely that this view of human dignity influenced the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission: some of the Commission’s most influential members—Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Malik (Lebanese existentialist philosopher turned diplomat), and General Carlos P. Romulo of the Philippines—were Episcopalian, Orthodox Christian, and Roman Catholic, respectively.

Yet they knew that if the document were to be taken seriously and have any impact outside the West, the document’s principles needed grounding in a broad cross-cultural consensus. Otherwise, the declaration would be thought of as a manifestation of merely “Western” values that were inapplicable to other cultures. The Commission consulted philosophers from all cultures and religions, from far East to far West, to distill a basic set of values that they could agree upon and unify around. The result was a proclamation of universal human rights grounded in our inherent dignity, affirming the fundamental unity of the human race. The dominant religious and philosophical traditions—Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism, Hinduism, and many of their respective offshoots—take for granted that all members of mankind have basic attributes in common, and that we share a common humanity. These traditions may differ over how to deal with life’s miseries, but not the what of who we are as a human race. It is this common essence that the UDHR captures: for the framers, the fact that every man, woman, and child shared the most fundamental thing in common put other racial, linguistic, national, and religious differences into perspective. As the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain mused, many songs can be played on the document’s thirty strings.

That the Human Rights Commission found such a consensus illustrates the universality of basic truths about the world and the human condition. It recognized that human nature is the same throughout time and culture, and that people everywhere are able to infer certain fundamental principles regarding the nature of freedom, human dignity, and communal flourishing. This ought to be a reminder to us in our own deeply divided moment: it is only when we agree upon shared fundamental values, such as the inherent dignity of all persons, that it is possible to debate the Good. It is also an encouragement: we were able to reach an agreement on first principles in the pursuit of a more just world.

However, today we are in danger of forgetting the consensus of values that once united us. Memories of past atrocities, which once galvanized the world to make such a statement of human value, are fading. This is particularly worrying because the UDHR is not legally binding: there are no armed forces, police, or courts to enforce its 30 articles. Indeed, critics often disparage the utility of the UDHR by pointing to the horrible human rights violations that have been committed in the decades since it was enacted. Yet in declaring the value of each human being—and outlining what they are owed, and owe to others, in light of their personhood—the UDHR was, and continues to be, a beacon of moral authority to the world.

The UDHR is in many ways analogous to America’s Declaration of Independence: another non-binding document which enshrined universal truths of the inviolability of human equality and rights.6 In his speech on the Dred Scott Decision on June 26, 1857, Abraham Lincoln discussed the denial of slaves’ equality and rights, and acknowledged the way in which the Declaration of Independence neither brought about perfect equality nor recognition of fundamental rights:

[America’s framers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

The principles of the Declaration of Independence reveal the moral wrong of slavery. The Declaration did not abolish that abhorrent institution, but as abolitionist Fredrick Douglass would argue, its moral clarity contributed to slavery’s eventual destruction.

The same may be said of the UDHR. The 70 years since its enactment have seen many advancements in the cause of human rights. The UDHR precipitated decolonization and the independence of post-colonial countries. Specific references to the UDHR are made in the constitutions of Algeria, Congo, Chad, Cameroon, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Togo, Somalia, Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Equitorial Guinea, Burundi, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso)—and even informed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and other countries.7 The UDHR also contributed to the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and to the collapse of the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet Bloc. In the United States, it hastened a proliferation of civil rights legislation protecting the freedoms and promoting equality for formerly oppressed and marginalized groups, such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and many others.

No one would argue that the UDHR was a sufficient cause for these developments. (It plainly was insufficient to prevent many of the atrocities that have occurred in the decades following its enactment—the genocides in Darfur, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Serbia, the totalitarianism in North Korea, the Congolese Civil War, and many other brutalities.) But its moral authority was undoubtedly an important instrument to those who worked so hard to effect progressive change.

The UDHR brought the world into a new era. It articulated a new standard to which states were to be accountable in how they treat their citizens. But the UDHR’s demands are not restricted to governments. The UDHR also sets a standard for our moral obligation to one another—citizen to citizen, person to person. The UDHR’s framers understood that culture is prior to law and institutions. The conduct they wished to deter or promote had to be instilled in hearts of minds of leaders and citizens alike.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of FDR and a key contributor to the UDHR, knew that a declaration of abstract ideals carried “no weight unless the people understand them, unless the people demand they be lived.” Judicial decisions and law change only when individuals “progress inwardly.”8 Universal human rights begin with each of us, she said, “in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. They are the world of the individual person.”

In her remarkable biography of the UDHR, A World Made New, Mary Ann Glendon eloquently describes how seriously the UDHR’s framers took the idea that respect for human rights, and for human dignity, begins at home: “[Small places] are where people first learn about their rights and how to exercise them responsibly—families, schools, workplaces, and religious and other associations. These little seedbeds of character and competence, together with the rule of law, political freedoms, social security, international cooperation, are all part of the Declaration’s dynamic ecology of freedom.”9

Seven decades ago, world leaders sought to bring from the ashes of humanity’s evil and darkest moments a document declaring humankind’s commitment to, and capacity for, justice and good. The UDHR was the fruit of this effort, but it was only the beginning. The survival of its principles depends on the decisions we take each day to recognize the inherent, inviolable dignity of all those with whom we interact.

Far from being a document that was an end in itself, let us see this seventieth anniversary as fresh start—a starting point with which we see ourselves as everyday architects of a more just, harmonious world.

 

Alexandra Hudson is a writer, bibliophile, and refugee from federal politics. She earned an M.S. in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar, lives in the American Midwest, and is currently writing a book on civility. She contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and The Hill. You can contact her at www.alexandraohudson.com and follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson

Notes and References:

1 Rosen, Michael. Dignity: It’s History and Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (accessed December 9th, 2018), 11.
2 Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. “Duty” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Jeremy Caradonna. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.271 (accessed December 8th, 2018). Originally published as “Devoir,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 4:915–917 (Paris, 1754).
3 Rosen, Michael. Dignity: It’s History and Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (accessed December 9th, 2018), 19.
4 Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated and edited by Mary Gregor [NY:  Cambridge, 1998], pp. 42-43.
5 “Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.”
6 Gendon, Mary Ann. Louis, chevalier de. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declariatio of Human Rights. New York: Random House Publishing (accessed December 8th, 2018).
7 Ibid, 228.
8 Ibid, 239.
9 Ibid, 240.

38 Comments

  1. Pingback: 1 – What Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Mean Today? | Traffic.Ventures Social

  2. Farris says

    the inherent dignity and . . . equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” principles that are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

    If human rights are inalienable how are they endowed? If endowed by man, governments or organizations are they not more than licenses or permits? An excellent article but the author should have included inalienable rights imply limited government. The ideal of limitations on governments has also faded over the last 70 years.

    • Kevin says

      That’s a good question, and it brings up the paradoxical nature of the problem, too. How would a body institute an actionable measure for or against inalienable rights, unless the citizens of the nation conceded upon the parameters of such measures? That’s why it requires the upholding and dictation of it’s agreed premises as parceled out through institution, as opposed to tacit acceptance. It simply isn’t obvious, since by nature the suggestion of inalienable rights are extremely subtle. As licensure and permission, it undoubtedly requires freedom for, and also freedom against. So, the very essence of the notion, simultaneously restrictive and liberating, seems to me to be the blueprint for a social contract that must be upheld and maintained by the society functioning under it’s premises. The interpretive body in charge of dictating in what manner dignity is defined (and thus violated) would depend upon the agreed upon norms of the society, I suppose, since the larger you extend it’s parameters outside the individual the more you end up losing the singular object entitled “dignity” and “inalienable right”, as much as a unitive body is want to execute individual endowments. I know I didn’t answer your question in the least, I’m just thinking out loud.

      • Farris says

        @Kevin

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your ruminations gave me something to ponder.

    • Scroto Baggins says

      The UDHR was a whopping philosophical fart; a pathetic attempt to ram the worst of Western neo-Enlightenment down the throat of the rest of the world while they were reeling.

      This article? Someone smelling that fart and wafting it closer to her nostrils with her hands, rolling her eyes with delight, apparently. I can’t even begin to list the thought mistakes and philosophical false attributions on a first reading. Not that it isn’t right; it isn’t even WRONG. It’s fantabulous.

      Dignity?? Anyone who wrote such a thing must never have gone outside his house. Human nature is a nightmare and a travesty. “Inherent human dignity” brought us the bass ackwards thinking that gives us the social justice bowlsheet whose stench blankets our lives now.

      Paul and James said “God is no respecter of persons.” The American Framers said “endowed by their Creator….” If you step away from Christianity … poof! Belief in inherent quality of man stands squarely on a shared belief in a Spirit that somehow manages to seep through man from a Creator, in spite of man’s abominable failings. Without that, there’s only earthly power … the Roman order once again.

      And most of the world isn’t Christian, culturally or religiously. So they laugh and wipe their asses with this declaration … particularly all the African countries the author lists, and China, and Iran, and Saudi … In fact, I do wonder how well the author’s book on civility will sell in these places. Something tells me it won’t be translated into Mandarin or Farsi. She seems to be repeating the catastrophic error of the Western UN founders that we seem too dense and self-satisfied in the West to grasp: NOT EVERYONE SHARES OUR VALUES, NOR DO THEY WANT TO! WAKE …. UP!

      I hope Donald Trump appoints Kanye West as UN Ambassador, then shuts the show down completely.

    • Anybody who has witnessed human activities long enough knows that there’s no actual notion held by humanity that we all have an inherent dignity. Killing, raping, stealing, lying, cheating….these are the realm of humans over nature, well, except perhaps the killing part which is built into much nature.

  3. Sydney says

    This should have been published with a Hollywood soundtrack attached. A massive orchestral number with the strings and horns in all the right places to make our hearts swell with big emotion, and a big crescendo at the end to bring tears to our eyes, kind of like a Kleenex commercial.

    (Was this melodramatic crap sponsored by the UN?)

    Excuse my deep cynicism, but this high-minded junk is from another era. Before despots, bureaucrats, and NGOs in and around the UN all wasted, pocketed, or criminally redirected billions upon billions of dollars supposedly meant for citizens and nation-building that never happened. Before the Human Rights Commission was created and then manned by murderers, thieves, and thugs.

    Now I get it. Now I get why Canada’s lazy, hypocritical, uneducated, terror-funding, trust-fund, globalist PM Justin Trudeau is ramming the Migrant Pact down Canada’s unwilling throat THIS WEEK. Because it coincides with this anniversary, and it will pad his CV beyond what was on it (part-time drama teaching and part-time snowboard-instructing, to be exact) before his last name and eyelashes got him elected to office by dumb millennials and nostalgic grannies. His pals Soros and Louise Arbour have promised him a cushy post after we throw him out of the PMO.

    This grand Declaration [cue swell of horns and strings, and pan camera over a crowd of joyful multicultural faces] is the filthy mother of twin bastard children: the putrid UNHRC, and the teat-sucking, sovereignty-destroying Migrant Pact.

    And funny, all this talk about “human rights,” seeing as the Migrant Pact comes with rules that erase the rights of citizens (freedom of press and expression; control of our borders; and of our own economy!) of the duped and dumb signing nations. ALL “human rights” for global vagrants of the world’s shitholes; NO rights for hard-working citizens of nations developed through national blood, sweat, and tears.

    And easy for Madame Starry-Eyed, author extraordinaire and “civility” expert, to sing the praises of all this from her fancy, frilly perch in the United States. She is nicely protected from the nation-destroying fallout of the Migrant Pact, because President Donald Trump has smartly refused to sign it. Clear-eyed Pres. Trump understands that the Migrant Pact will destroy anything it touches, and that the UN has outlived its usefulness and should be emptied, shuttered, and razed.

    Woe is Canada. Bye-bye, Canada. Nations are hard to build, and easy to destroy. That’s sadly the real legacy of this fancy, optimistic, and once-hopeful Declaration.

    Signed,
    Debbie Downer of The Declaration

    • Ray Andrews says

      Here we have a specimen of the sort of person who voted for Trump. The anger is not subtle, is it? One might recoil, but look more closely — Debbie Downer isn’t really a Nazi, she is just nauseated by the hypocrisy of the ‘human rights’ folks to the point where she wants to take a flamethrower to the entire notion of human rights. She would, IMHO, throw out the baby with the bathwater tho. If Debbie could calm down, I’d like to ask her what she’d prefer to see in place of the UDHR. It is true that it has been co-opted by the global homogenists but was it a bad idea in itself?

      • Peter from Oz says

        Ray
        How has the UDHR actually operated to help anyone other than governments?
        It does need tho be chucked into the dustbin where it belongs. All Western countries had their own rules, traditions and conventions about the rights of the individual versus the state. There is really no need for anything else.
        Of course in Canada they have a Charter. But I understand that the Courts there interpret the Charter in such ways as to diminish freedom of speech, the most important right of all. The Charter also has provision to override it if it is thought necessary.
        There is no baby in this bathwater, only a silly emperor who of course is starkers.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Peter from Oz

          You surprise me there Peter. I’m not saying the thing has done a huge amount of good, but surely the sentiments are noble? Geez … well, nuts … Eleanor R was a very nice lady and her intentions were good anyway. Some say all these ‘human rights’ thingies end up being twisted into totalitarianism of another sort but … well ok you win.

          • DeplorableDude says

            Noble sentiments and a dollar will get you a cup of cheap coffee.

  4. Yo, Sydney… Don’t hold it in… Tell us what you really think… Let it all hang out… We can handle it!

  5. Further to that, that given this is the centennial of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his great novel “The First Circle”, he painted a fictionalized and bitter but blackly-funny portrait of SJW avant la lettre Eleanor Roosevelt getting flim-flammed by cynical gulag apparatchiki.

  6. This article contains severe factual errors. Primary among them is that the UDHR is indeed universal.

    As far as I can tell the only countries adhering to the universality of the declaration is the EU, the British commonwealth countries that have significant european ethnic population. The exceptions are South Korea, japan, Israel, Taiwan.

    The key predictors for upholding Universal human rights seems to be whiteness, historical adherence to christianity and whether or not the US successfully conquered a country and maintain military bases there.

    Most of the African countries mentioned use UDHR to get aid, not much more.

    The second error is thar UDHR in any way helped with decolonisation. The reason Britain withdrew from their colonies is because they were broke. Having colonies requires money, see Silk Road and US military aid to foreign governments. Also all most all decolonized states became one party states that used HR as a handbook of satire.

    • The reason that the Dutch withdrew from their East Indian colonies was political influence/warnings of the USA, themselves a oncetime colony, and, ever since, the great propagandist of free sovereign nations. The Dutch wanted with all their might (they lost 1000s of soldiers in the colonial war, and called it police actions) to stay on their tea and rubber plantations, besides, they had the (self granted) plight to educate the locals to civilised and modern, democratic citizens, ready to govern themselves, ultimately.

    • stevengregg says

      The Islamic countries reject the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In their view, people are not all equal because Muslims are enlightened by Islam and therefore superior to infidels. Also, the Koran clearly commands Muslims to convert, subjugate, or kill non-Muslims, so they can not reject violence against others. There are no equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family for Muslims. They don’t believe in freedom, but rather obedience to Allah. They also believe that peace can only be achieved by Islam conquering the world.

  7. Emmanuel says

    While this is an interesting article to read, I believe the author fails to address some very important issues regarding the idea of universal human rights such as the problems of conflict of values created by any universal assertion about the human condition and the problems of hierarchies of values and cultural practices that arise in such a situation.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Somehow it always gets missed that “rights” come with “responsibilities.”

      • @Lightning Rose – Can you share any set of rights that express responsibilities? Rights are limitations we try to impose o more powerful people that have the means to control you.

  8. Ray Andrews says

    Not meaning to be pedantic, it’s a beautiful essay, but the giant’s name was Douglass not Douglas.

    • Mark Beal says

      Meaning to be pedantic, in addition to the above, I object to the misplaced apostrophe in “The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. If the apostrophe is not misplaced, I demand to know exactly which united nation the author is referring to.

  9. markbul says

    “Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of FDR and a key contributor to the UDHR …”

    And now you know. It’s exactly the kind of thing FDR would dump on Eleanor between time with his mistress and laughing about jokes made at his wife’s expense by his cronies.

  10. Stephanie says

    I’ll echo the sentiments expressed above: whether something appears good on the surface is much less important than whether it does good in practice. The author points out that the UDHR failed to prevent many atrocities, but fails to point out it has lead us directly down the wrong path. By claiming the moral high ground, and concentrating it in the hands of an organisation largely run by despots, the UDHR is a club used selectively to attack countries of good conscience, while providing cover for terrible countries like the ones the author lists as having referenced the UDHR in their constitutions.

    Unlike the Declaration of Independence, which embodied the spirit of a people, rooted in their culture, the UDHR was a top-down attempt to impose Western values on the rest of the world, out of the foolish assumption that the rest of the world shares our values. They don’t. Otherwise, they would have had their own version of the Declaration of Independence.

    • The EU is famous for creating lengthy standards by committee without concern for how things actually work (OSI in the tech world comes to mind).

    • I agree again Stephanie, though a few non-westerns were also involved and assisting, the UDHR was mainly a top-down attempt to impose Western values on the rest of the world, providing for that West very valuable outcome in Free World Trade and the freedom from responsibility (forget about some minor wars) to act on the world scene, due to that hailed freedom and the sovereignty of nations.

      • And the time, of course, it was 3 yrs after the USA won the biggest world war ever, and it would take decennia before this position on the world scene would feeble down. In fact, I feel very much for the intention, it’s not more than logical, it’s the same thing always, and everywhere where an imperium is imposing, or is on the verge of it. So, criticism on this UDHR without the timely considerations also is rather out of tune.

  11. Jerry says

    To me the UDHR is a wonderful statement of ideals to which we all should aspire to live.

    They are not western values but universal values. Mahatma Gandhi espoused the basic belief that we are all members of the human family for example. Ramakrishna spoke to the essence: “You should love everyone because God dwells in all beings.”

    • We are all part of the human family only if you mean the world “family” in the sense of taxonomic grouping. Most people don’t even know their neighbors or interact with them infrequently. To pretend we’re all one big family is demonstrably untrue.

    • Ideas? What sort of moral value suggests that newborn infants, ISIS terrorists and Doctors Without Borders have the same dignity or social value or moral worth?
      Equality under the law has yet to be practiced in any place in the world throughout history. To pretend that humans have a natural equality is patently absurd, easily falsified with the preponderance of evidence (name any measure of a human, other than we’re born and die “at some time in some place,” where humans are equal).
      Such a definition of equality suggests good and bad are the same, hard working and lazy are the same, capable and incapable are the same, nice and mean are the same, helpful and destructive are the same… It suggests I can just take anything I want because you can’t have anything “over” me. It’s ideal communism, and that’s only an ideal to those who prefer a dystopia over a reality.

    • I wonder whether the muslim populations (over 1 billion) will agree on that, Jerry. From others (like the Hindu, the Chinese, Japanese), I actually don’t know it, but from the muslims I’m sure (I ve lived among them) they don’t. Dont forget, that the purely personal responsability, rights and plights is not something very old, even not in the West.

  12. In India, I was brought up on the principle of universal human dignity. it was also central to the Gandhian institutions my parents collaborated with. Note that Gandhi was educated in England and must have gotten touched with Judeo-Christian ideology. Indian society is really ruled by the caste system, to the extent that even 2nd generation converts to Christianity knew and acted on the caste of origin when considering things like marriage. Genetic analysis of the Indian subcontinent indicates that there has been very little intermarriage between castes for at least 1500 years, and this continues to this day.

    The endorsement of the DOHR is used by some of the nastiest countries on earth to extract money from western industrial countries. eg, ‘We need help to fully realise the DOHR’, but most of the ‘aid’ is syphoned off by rather nasty totalitarian government officials.

  13. V 2.0 says

    1. High minded philosophizing and declarations mean nothing if they cannot be enforced. The people who get all starry eyed over this sort of thing seem to forget that the world is not just going to hand them their rights and their dignity because they are somehow entitled to these things.
    2. One search for ‘People of Walmart’ on YouTube made me wonder whether perhaps we should take these rights away from some humans and give them to a few other creatures who seem to be far more worthy.

  14. Morgan Foster says

    “Far from being a document that was an end in itself, let us see this seventieth anniversary as fresh start—a starting point with which we see ourselves as everyday architects of a more just, harmonious world.”

    I’m trying to imagine how we’re going to get the majority populations of Myanmar, China and Iran, just to name three examples, to be more just and harmonious to their minority populations without forcing them to do it against their will.

  15. Mark Beal says

    The basic question, which the author sees fit to answer in the affirmative, is this: Is there a place for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

    Disappointingly the author doesn’t go on to discuss more interesting questions: If there is a place for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the present UN Declaration the best possible such document, in theory and in practice? If not, how might the Declaration be improved? Can it be improved? If not, what might one put in its place?

    As someone who is no expert on the small print, far less the legal implications of the UDHR, I would have welcomed a far more searching discussion about the problems that arise when various rights come into conflict with each other. If you care about the UDHR, you need to be aware that in the eyes of many, it is often perceived as being used (or abused) by unsavoury characters who themselves have absolutely no regard for the articles in the Declaration. The legal hoopla surrounding Abu Hamza’s extradition to the United States springs to mind.

    The kind of question I would like to see discussed is how to balance the right of asylum from persecution (article 14), if there is reason to believe that the person seeking asylum might simultaneously pose a threat to the life and security (article 3) of the people of the country in which he or she is seeking asylum, especially if the person seeking asylum holds religious views which there is reason to believe might be manifested in a violent way (article 18 protects the manifestation of religious beliefs), assuming that the person has hitherto not been convicted of any felony.

    I would also welcome a discussion about the implications of Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” To what extent do practices such as no-platforming and arbitrary closure of Twitter accounts infringe on a person’s rights to freedom of opinion and expression? And if governments do not institute laws to prevent student unions from no-platforming speakers, are they therefore guilty of not guaranteeing said freedoms?

    It should also be noted that Article 11 includes the Presumption of Innocence as a universal right. In an age when we are encouraged to believe the accuser unconditionally, one might easily suspect that a lot of people who claim to be in favour of the UDHR are merely paying lip service to it.

    The desirability of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be argued every which way, as can the merits and demerits of the present one. One can hold that the intent is noble, while at the same time believing that the Declaration is used, misused or not used at all in very peculiar and arbitrary ways. Anyone who believes in the value of the UDHR, as the author clearly does, really needs to address the flaws and failings of the UDHR in theory and practice, rather than settle for celebration.

    • Paying lip service is the inevitable path to follow where the United Nations are deciding on the roads and global measures to take. Slavery has been abolished because Brittania ruled the waves. Would it have been abolished in a UN body as existing now?

  16. augustine says

    A thoughtful article that has inspired some predictable cynicism. That cynicism is rooted in the idea that we are not actually equal one to another. I take the meaning of the UDHR to mean, instead, that we are to regard any of our fellow men as equally deserving of consideration, both privately and socially. As the starting or preemptive assumption it will have a different and likely more positive effect on outcome than a pessimistic view. Of course such a high minded idea does not preclude us considering the next guy to be a jerk, nor does it demand that everyone should get equal treatment. Neither does it prevent us being prudent in assessing risk or danger. It is an idea apart from those freedoms.

    Because none of us can morally adjudicate any other person, the equal consideration of others is a laudable premise. It should be taken at face value and not linked to notions of actual equality, even less to any fancies of equality of outcome. It is an outlook held in good faith and without expectations– held to keep expectations at bay even– though we know that it is an outlook that requires constant nurturing and reinforcement.

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