• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Human Rights: The Midlife Crisis

The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen

by Paul Gordon Lauren
University of Pennsylvania Press, 385 pp., $29.95 (paper)

The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights

edited by Joanne R. Bauer, by Daniel A. Bell
Cambridge University Press, 394 pp., $21.95 (paper)

Religion and Human Rights: Competing Claims?

edited by Carrie Gustafson, by Peter Juviler
M.E. Sharpe, 209 pp., $23.95 (paper)

In the Lion’s Den: A Shocking Account of Persecution and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond

by Nina Shea, foreword by Chuck Colson, afterword by Ravi Zacharius
Broadman and Holman, 126 pp., $9.99 (paper)

United States of America: Rights for All

by Amnesty International USA
Amnesty International USA, 153 pp., $12.95

Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence

by Martha Minow
Beacon, 214 pp., $23.00


Fifty years after its proclamation, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the sacred text of what Elie Wiesel has called a “world-wide secular religion.”1 UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called the Declaration the “yardstick by which we measure human progress.” Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer has described it as “the essential document, the touchstone, the creed of humanity that surely sums up all other creeds directing human behaviour.”2

Human rights has become the major article of faith of a secular culture that fears it believes in nothing else. The military campaign in Kosovo depends for its legitimacy on what fifty years of human rights has done to our moral instincts, weakening the presumption in favor of state sovereignty, strengthening the presumption in favor of intervention when massacre and deportation become state policy. Yet what this new presumption commits us to is anything but clear. Do we intervene everywhere or only somewhere? And if we don’t intervene everywhere, does that make us hypocrites? And then what price are we prepared to pay? For some the question is how much collateral damage can moral internationalism sustain before defensible ends are tarnished by harrowing means. For others, the issue is whether moral universals are worth anything unless you are prepared to commit blood and treasure to their defense.

As the liberal conscience passes through an hour of trial in Kosovo, it is worth going back to the beginning again, to look hard at human rights and the moral universals we believe to be at stake. Article One of the Universal Declaration simply declares: “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.” The Universal Declaration enunciates rights; it doesn’t explain why people have them. As Johannes Morsink makes clear in his revealing and useful history of the drafting of the Universal Declaration, this silence was deliberate. When Eleanor Roosevelt first convened a drafting committee in her Washington Square apartment in February 1947, a Chinese Confucian and a Lebanese Thomist got into such an argument about the philosophical and metaphysical bases of rights that Mrs. Roosevelt concluded that the only way forward lay in West and East agreeing to disagree.

It was also apparent that the less said the better about the gap between what the signers practiced and what they preached. Every one had something to be ashamed of—the Americans their Jim Crow legislation in the South, the Canadians their treatment of native peoples, the Soviets the Red Terror. The embarrassing state of the “is” kept all eyes firmly focused on the “ought.” Agreement on high principles was also made easier by leaving the matter of their enforcement entirely unresolved. Nothing in the Declaration mandated the right of member states to intervene in another country’s affairs to stop human rights abuses. The UN Charter’s guarantee of state sovereignty was left untouched. Instead, the drafters put their hopes in the idea that by declaring rights as moral universals, they could foster a global rights consciousness among those they called “the common people.”

A cloak of silence was also thrown over the question of God. The Brazilian delegation proposed that Article One include the proposition that men are “created in the image and likeness of God,” and “endowed with reason and conscience.” Communist and non-Communist delegations joined in rejecting these totemic references on the grounds that they would detract from the Declaration’s universal appeal. The Brazilians tried again, replacing “created in the image and likeness of God” with “by nature,” but the Nationalist Chinese delegate prevailed on the Brazilian delegation to “spare the members of the Committee the task of deciding by vote on a principle which was in fact beyond the capacity of human judgment.”

This secularism has become the lingua franca of global human rights, as English has become the lingua franca of the global economy. Both serve as lowest common denominators, enabling people to pretend to share more than they actually do. Pragmatic silence on ultimate questions has made it easier for the world’s very different cultures to sign up. As the philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, the concept of human rights “could travel better if separated from some of its underlying justifications.”3 The Declaration’s vaunted universality is as much a testament to what the drafters kept out of it as to what they put in.

What they did put in was a comprehensive attempt to outlaw the kind of jurisprudence which the Nazis had used to pervert the rule of law in Germany. The Article Sixteen provisions for free marriage choice, which have aroused so much resistance in the Islamic world, were not actually directed at Islam at all, but at the Nuremberg Laws banning marriages between “Aryan” and Jewish Germans. The right to legal personality, enshrined in Article Six, was explicitly written with the memory of the German expropriations of Jewish property in mind. Beyond the specifics of Nazi jurisprudence hung the shadow of the Holocaust itself. The Declaration’s opening preamble evokes the memory of “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The Declaration may still be a child of the Enlightenment, but it was written when faith in the Enlightenment faced its deepest crisis of confidence.

The Holocaust made the Declaration possible, but its influence was also deeply paradoxical. The Declaration envisioned a world where, if human beings found their civil and political rights as citizens were taken away, they could still appeal for protection on the basis of their rights as human beings. Beneath the civil and political, in other words, stood the natural. But the Holocaust showed that once civil and political rights were taken away, human beings were defenseless. As Hannah Arendt argued in her Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, when Jewish citizens of Europe were deprived of their national or civic rights, when, finally, they had been stripped naked and could only appeal to their captors as plain, bare human beings, they found that their nakedness did not even give them the claim of common human pity on their tormentors. “It seems,” Arendt wrote, “that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow man.” The Universal Declaration set out to reestablish the idea of human rights at the precise historical moment in which they had been shown to have no moral purchase whatever.

This paradox defines the divided consciousness with which we have lived with the idea of human rights ever since. We defend human rights as moral universals in the full awareness that in a place like Kosovo moral universals are unlikely to stay the hands of those bent on massacre and deportation. But we have lived with this knowledge since the Holocaust.

The Holocaust laid bare what the world looked like when natural law was abrogated, when pure tyranny could accomplish its unbridled will. Without the Holocaust then, no Declaration. Because of the Holocaust, no unconditional faith in the Declaration either.

Even so, the Declaration might never have been drafted had the times not conspired to postpone ideological arguments which might otherwise have wrecked it. In February 1947 the cold war was already underway but not yet so envenomed with nuclear paranoia as to make all headway impossible. While odious figures like Andrei Vyshinsky—Stalin’s prosecutor in the Red Terror of 1937 and 1938—participated in the deliberations and made sure that the Soviet bloc, including Yugoslavia, abstained in the final vote on the Declaration, they did not sabotage it altogether as they would have done before long. The Chinese seat on the drafting committee was held by a scholarly Confucian named Chang. Two years later, the Chinese delegate might have been a nominee of that great friend of human rights, Mao Zedong.

Likewise, decolonization was underway but as yet the hegemony of Western rights discourse had not come under challenge. With India and Pakistan already independent and the Dutch and the French starting to quit their Asian colonies, the waning imperial powers had to concede that the Declaration applied to their existing colonies. At the same time, the newly independent nations, most of whose leaders had received a Western education, did not yet feel impelled to insist upon the radical distinctiveness of their moral traditions. The descent of so many of these newly independent states into dictatorship or civil war had not yet occurred. It was still possible to believe that winning independence and freedom as a state would be enough to guarantee the freedoms of the individuals inside it. The emergence of the Asian Tiger economies and the rebirth of radical Islam were still decades away. The great philosophical conflict between “the West and the Rest,” which has called into question the universality of human rights, still lay in the future.

The other factor which made agreement possible in 1948 was that the West itself was still one. The Declaration belongs to the brief postwar moment when the drafters still shared a progressive cast of mind. Eleanor Roosevelt incarnated the New Deal. John Humphrey, the Canadian law professor who wrote the first draft of the Declaration, had links to his country’s socialist party, the CCF. The Chileans and Brazilians were strongly influenced by Latin American socialism. The French rights tradition of 1791 was represented by René Cassin, who had been General de Gaulle’s lawyer in wartime London. The progressive discourse of the victors of World War II provided the intellectual armature for the drafting committee.

Only five years later, the entire scene had changed. Progressive politics were on the defensive. The Soviet Union had tested a hydrogen bomb. Officials in Czechoslovakia had been killed on orders from Moscow. China had fallen to the Communists; McCarthy was persecuting the liberal internationalists of the previous era; Republican Senator John Bricker fulminated against UN human rights documents as “completely foreign to American law and tradition.” One of John Foster Dulles’s first acts as incoming secretary of state was to pull Mrs. Roosevelt off the human rights committee at the UN, proclaiming that the United States “would not become a party to any human rights treaty approved by the United Nations.” America effectively withdrew all efforts to turn the Declaration into a binding covenant. Successive secretaries of state, from Dulles to Kissinger, regarded human rights as a tedious obstacle to the pursuit of great power politics.

From 1948 until the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, there were two human rights cultures in the world—socialist and capitalist—one giving primacy to social and economic rights, the other putting civil and political rights first. Sterile polemics between these two made a genuinely global human rights culture impossible.

The moment of opportunity in 1948 was, in retrospect, brief indeed. So brief that one might well ask how a global human rights movement managed to emerge. In his well-documented and thorough book, William Korey argues that the global spread of human rights owes much more to nongovernmental organizations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, than it does to the UN itself or to governments. Even before the Declaration was promulgated, the UN Commission on Human Rights ruled that it “had no power to take any action in regard to any complaints concerning human rights.” This capitulation by member states to the principle of state sovereignty did not stop an earlier group of NGOs such as the Anti-Slavery Society, B’nai B’rith, and the French Fédération pour les droits de l’homme from bringing individual rights cases before UN bodies. Even though these bodies could do nothing, member states were shamed by the publicity. But it was not until the late 1960s that the UN system began to authorize human rights reports critical of specific countries, among them South Africa, Haiti, and Greece under military dictatorship.

  1. 1

    Elie Wiesel, “A Tribute to Human Rights,” in Yael Danieli and others, editors, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Fifty Years and Beyond, p. 3.

  2. 2

    Nadine Gordimer, “Reflections by Nobel Laureates,” in Danieli, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:Fifty Years and Beyond, p. viii.

  3. 3

    Charles Taylor, “Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights,” in Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell, editors, The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, p. 126.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print