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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.”
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 …
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