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The universality of Human Rights?

THE UNIVERSALITY OF HUMAN RIGHTS?At the end of this year, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will celebrate its 75th birthday.  The Declaration cannot be called a consensual document, since it evolved in a world which had just emerged from World War 2.  The United Nations at that time consisted of only 58 nations.

1. This year, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be 75 years old.  It is one of the most remarkable documents of the 20th century, which also saw two World Wars, both characterised by extraordinary violence and destruction.  In particular, the traumatic experience of Nazi barbarity and the consequent World War 2 left deep wounds.  The immediate post-war world faced a moment of change.  The United Nations Organisation was created in 1945 at the centre of the reconstruction of the world and represented different ways of working.  These different ways were based in pacifism, cooperation and International Law.  Within the scope of the United Nations, Resolution 217A contained the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man.  It was approved in Paris on 10th December 1948.  Portugal was not party to this Resolution, since the country was not admitted to the UN until 1955.

2. Today, the Declaration excites general admiration and deep respect, together with a genuine desire to apply it.  But it is also ignored and violated, and there is a strong controversy about its universal validity.  For its critics, it is western and not universal.  It was approved by only 48 states which do not today represent the entire international community.  The time when it was approved was still a colonial age, and at the time the United Nations comprised only 58 members, where today it has 193.  The Declaration has a western stamp because Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the American President Franklin D Roosevelt, was also the driving force behind the idea.  Western ideas are also discernible in the Commission which prepared the text.  There were 18 Commission members from various parts of the world, but the principal authors of the draft were either western or westernised.  René Cassin, for example, was a French lawyer of Jewish extraction and John Humphrey was  a Canadian lawyer.  Other important contributors included Pen Chun Chang a cosmopolitan Chinese diplomat and Charles Malik, an orthodox Christian Lebanese politician and diplomat.

3. The criticisms of the Declaration applied also to the UN itself, from the beginning because of the composition of the Security Council, with its five permanent members with their power of veto (China, France, UK, USA and USSR).  This arrangement mirrors the shape of the world at the end of World War 2, but not the world of today. The controversy over the universal character of Human Rights is explicit in the dozens of Islamic countries, the great majority of which were not independent sovereign states in 1948.  Equivalent to the western world and its vision of a universal world, a vision inherited from Christianity and gradually secularised after the 18th century, Islam is the other great culture / civilisation with a universal character.  In 1990, the Islamic Cooperation Conference (Organização da Conferência Islâmica) approved a (different) Declaration of Human Rights in Islam.  Already in 1947, in an article published by the American Association of Anthropology, the following text appeared: “The problem of the detail in a Declaration of Human Rights was relatively simple in the 18th century, because it was not concerned with human rights, but of the rights of men in the light of sanctions imposed by a single society.  Even so, a document as noble as the American Declaration of Independence, or the American Declaration of Rights, could be written by men who were themselves owners of slaves, in a country where slavery formed an integral part of the recognised social order.……Today, the problem is complicated by the fact that the Declaration has to be applicable over the whole world.  It has to include and recognise the validity of many different ways of life.”  Besides the relative substance of the criticisms, it is important to recognise a crucial fact:  the world is a better place with the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.  The brutal reality of war, political and religious persecution and flagrant abuse of the dignity of human beings demonstrate that, in spite of the imperfections and problems, the Declaration is a greater good.  For the innumerable victims in the world, the Declaration of Human Rights, and the Conventions inspired by it, are a last ray of hope and dignity.


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