U.N. Declaration On Rights Is Still Universal Gauge

LOS ANGELES—A half-century ago, amid the ruins of World War II, the free nations of the world met in general assembly to begin the task of establishing a post-war order that would secure the peace, advance global prosperity, alleviate poverty, and promote human rights around the globe. The institution created to realize those lofty goals, the United Nations, was, from its founding conference at San Francisco in April 1945, the object of nearly messianic expectations.

“Inexorable tides of history are carrying us toward a golden age of freedom, justice, peace, and social well-being,” one delegate to the San Francisco conference enthused.

“The U.N. charter,” added another 1945 orator, “has grown from the prayers and prophecies of Isaiah and Micah.”

Even the pragmatic Cordell Hull, U.S. secretary of state until 1944, predicted that the new United Nations would render the security arrangements of “the unhappy past” — things like alliances, spheres of influence, and balances of power — obsolete.

“Born … amid such euphoria,” veteran Israeli diplomat Abba Eban wrote in a wry assessment of the organization's beginnings, “a fall from grace was inevitable.”

It was not long in coming. By the late 1940s, when the United Nations was barely up and running, superpower rivalries and the emerging arms race had poured cold water on such utopian hopes.

This Dec. 10, however, marks the 50th anniversary of a signal achievement of the infant organization that has endured the tumultuous decades since the U.N.'s founding and the vagaries of its own mixed record: 1948's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“… [D]isregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,” declares the Declaration's preamble, “and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

The fruit of the first U.N. Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the declaration was conceived by its backers as a kind of international Bill of Rights. Far more than a static landmark of international law, the Declaration has been, and continues to be, an agent of political and social change, invoked over the years by nearly all human rights movements, from Vaclav Havel's Civic Forum to Nelson Mandela's campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.

What is not as well appreciated is the fact that the text of the Declaration significantly reflects the social thought of Catholic neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain and was drafted, in part, and shepherded through the U.N. bureaucracy by Lebanese diplomat Charles Malik, a Harvard-trained philosopher and committed Greek Orthodox Christian. (Malik went on to become Lebanon's first ambassador to Washington.)

The historic act was forwarded to the General Assembly where it was unanimously adopted on Dec. 10, 1948.

(There were eight abstentions, however: Saudi Arabia objected to the provision in article 18 that postulated a right to change one's religion; South Africa objected to the racial equality provisions; and the Soviet bloc abstained on the contradictory grounds that the Declaration was merely “toothless” generalities on the one hand, and that it threatened national sovereignty on the other.)

“This is a document born at a very unique moment in history, a window of opportunity,” said Habib Malik, son of Charles Malik, one of the Declaration's architects, and adjunct professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese-American University in Byblos, Lebanon. “It came right after the end of history's worst war, and right before the Cold War. There was just enough international outrage to bring about a consensus on human rights, and just enough time to get it voted in before Cold War polarization started.”

Malik pointed out that the Declaration caps a long history of attempts to formulate a common doctrine of rights and freedoms: the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, the French Rights of Man.

“What was missing from all of these previous attempts,” he told the Register, “was the international dimension. That's the important thing about the Universal Declaration — it's truly international.”

‘This document, for better or worse, has become the single most important common reference point for discussions about freedom and dignity in the world today.’

Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard University, whose book Rights From Wrong: The Story of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be out next year, sees the document as a charter for the future as well: “Most Americans are unaware of it. Our attitude is that we have all the rights we want, thank you. That's got to change.”

Glendon stresses that global interdependence is more a factor today than it was when the Declaration was drafted 50 years ago.

“This document, for better or worse, has become the single most important common reference point for discussions about freedom and dignity in the world today,” she said. People need a way to sit down with those who don't share their religious values, culture, or history, Glendon urged.

Reaching some kind of universal consensus on basic human rights was perhaps the greatest single challenge, and the most surprising achievement, of the original drafters of the Declaration.

As early as 1946, Maritain, who worked for the U.N. Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization at the time, and philosopher Richard McKeon, among others, were commissioned to sound out various cultural and religious leaders to determine whether there was a basis on which to establish a common framework for human rights.

To their surprise, they discovered that there was a kind of unwritten consensus among the various world religions and cultures about fundamental human values that could, and should, be guaranteed in international law.

On the basis of this material, the U.N. Human Rights Commission appointed a small drafting party consisting of Malik, Chinese philosopher Peng Chun Chang, Eleanor Roosevelt, and French jurist Rene Cassin to draw up a preliminary draft of the declaration in 1947. This much-revised draft formed the basis of the Universal Declaration approved by the General Assembly a year later.

“Thanks to Malik and Maritain,” said Glendon, “you can find a quite extraordinary degree of correspondence between the Declaration and principles of Catholic social teaching.”

For example, she said, the concept of the person in the Declaration is neither the autonomous individual of modern Western thought, nor the collective being of the Marxist tradition.

For the Declaration's drafters, the human person is uniquely valuable in him or herself, and viewed in the context of relations with others.

The Declaration's first article puts it this way: “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.” And in Article 29, we read: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.”

The Declaration is not a “libertarian” document, says Glendon. “It speaks of an ordered liberty, grounded in a concept of the person in community.”

Unlike the American Bill of Rights, she said, the Declaration is not an enumeration of isolated individual rights, but “an integrated whole, where all rights have limits, where all rights are conditioned by duties.”

In that sense, the Declaration stands as a corrective to some tendencies prevalent at the United Nations itself nowadays.

In the so-called Asian values debates of the early 1990s, for example, Chinese delegates, in particular, charged that U.N. human rights provisions constituted an imposition of “Western” cultural norms on non-Western, “collectivist” societies.

“The charge of ‘Westernness,’” said Glendon, “is more often than not the cry of the tyrant and the notorious abuser of human rights.”

In fact, the Declaration is “impressively multicultural,” arguing, in effect, that there can be certain general principles held to be universal that, nevertheless, can be enculturated in a variety of ways. “It's not a top-down, imposed universalism,” she said, “but an invitation to nations and cultures to compete with one another in moral excellence.”

The problem, though, Glendon noted, is that today's United Nations has 25 specialized agencies and thousands of employees.

“Bureaucratic structures attract lobbyists and special interest groups,” she said. “The U.N. is attractive to groups who think they can do an end-run around ordinary domestic political processes by working their ideas into U.N. documents and touting them as international ‘norms’ — radical, ‘anti-people’ environmentalists, outmoded feminists, radical homosexual and lesbian groups, population control advocates.”

What happens, then, she said, is that so-called international standards can be used to place conditions on aid, on loans from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

“This is, literally, a form of neo-colonialism,” Glendon said, “and poorer countries resent it deeply.”

The Declaration, on the other hand, she said, was never intended to produce uniformity in the application of its principles.

It's not for nothing that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan remarked recently that the time had come not only to protect human rights, but to protect the Universal Declaration itself. Despite the euphoria that attended its passage half a century ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said Malik, promised no era of heaven on earth.

“It's a unique achievement, but it's not perfect,” he said. “What we have to ask ourselves is what kind of world we'd have without it.”

Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.