UN’s Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights turns 70, yet abuses still com­mon

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY AN­DREW FIALA

This year is the 70th an­niver­sary of the United Na­tions Univer­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights. The lan­guage of hu­man rights has been around for so long that we of­ten take it for granted. When Thomas Jef­fer­son de­clared in 1776 that we are en­dowed by our cre­ator with in­alien­able rights, this was still a novel idea. In 1789, French rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies picked up the thread. In 1791, the U.S. rat­i­fied a Bill of Rights. And af­ter World War II, in 1948, the U.N. is­sued its Dec­la­ra­tion.

Peo­ple have not al­ways be­lieved that it is self-ev­i­dent that hu­man be­ings have equal rights and in­her­ent worth. In the Mid­dle Ages, moral­ity was un­der­stood in terms of the nat­u­ral law wo­ven into the uni­verse by God. This in­cluded a va­ri­ety of hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­tures. Fathers and mon­archs had an ab­so­lute right to rule over fam­i­lies and king­doms. And slav­ery was per­mit­ted.

The mod­ern idea of in­di­vid­ual rights teaches oth­er­wise. To­day we think that slav­ery is wrong, that cruel fathers should be jailed, and that tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ments can be over­thrown be­cause these prac­tices vi­o­late hu­man rights.

The anti-au­thor­i­tar­ian as­pect of the the­ory of rights wor­ries some skep­tics. The philoso­pher Jeremy Ben­tham once claimed that the idea of nat­u­ral rights is “non­sense on stilts.” Ben­tham wanted to pro­mote so­cial wel­fare. But he feared the rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit of the idea of hu­man rights.

De­fend­ers of hu­man rights main­tain, how­ever, that so­cial wel­fare can­not come at the ex­pense of in­di­vid­ual dig­nity. Our rights tran­scend so­ci­ety and the state. Hu­man rights lan­guage thus of­ten appeals to re­li­gious ideas. If all per­sons are cre­ated in the im­age of God, for ex­am­ple, this spark of the di­vine gives us a sa­cred val­ued that the state can­not vi­o­late.

Of course, the­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­ments won’t be ac­cepted by ev­ery­one. That is why the U.N. Dec­la­ra­tion avoids re­li­gious lan­guage. Ar­ti­cle 1 of the dec­la­ra­tion states: “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.”

This does not say who en­dows us with value. It sim­ply states that our rights are a nat­u­ral fact.

While avoid­ing the­o­log­i­cal ques­tions, the pre­am­ble to the U.N. Dec­la­ra­tion gives us an ar­gu­ment about the ba­sis of hu­man rights. The dec­la­ra­tion ex­plains that recog­ni­tion of rights is es­sen­tial for peace and jus­tice. It states that con­tempt for hu­man rights re­sults in “bar­barous acts.” And it points out that re­bel­lions break out when rights are vi­o­lated.

This is a prag­matic ac­count. Hu­man rights are valu­able as the ba­sis of a just and sta­ble world. This idea may fall short of the soar­ing spirit of the the­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­ment. But it is use­ful for find­ing com­mon ground and de­vel­op­ing global con­sen­sus.

Un­for­tu­nately, dis­agree­ments re­main. And claims about hu­man rights are of­ten politi­cized.

Last week, for ex­am­ple, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion sin­gled out hu­man-rights abuses in Nicaragua. The White House ex­plained that its ex­ec­u­tive or­der sanc­tion­ing Nicaragua “demon­strates the pres­i­dent’s strong lead­er­ship in the West­ern Hemi­sphere, de­fense of demo­cratic prin­ci­ples, and pro­tec­tion of hu­man rights.”

At the same time, Demo­cratic Rep. Bar­bara Lee claimed that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is vi­o­lat­ing hu­man rights at the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der. She said, “The tear-gassing of women and chil­dren at the bor­der is an atroc­ity. It’s a vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights.”

Ear­lier this year, the United States with­drew from the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Coun­cil be­cause that en­tity is too crit­i­cal of Is­rael. The other na­tions who refuse to par­tic­i­pate on that coun­cil are Iran, Eritrea and North Korea. To­day the U.S. is lead­ing a U.N. ef­fort to con­demn North Korean hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions, while the North Kore­ans protest.

Ide­o­log­i­cal dis­putes about hu­man rights per­sist be­cause hu­man rights are such pow­er­ful tools for crit­i­ciz­ing states and gov­ern­ment. And de­spite dis­agree­ments, global con­sen­sus about hu­man rights con­tin­ues to grow.

We still have a long way to go. The na­tions of the world con­tinue to vi­o­late hu­man rights. And hu­man rights lan­guage can be used as pro­pa­ganda. But the idea that hu­man be­ings have in­her­ent dig­nity gives us a foun­da­tion upon which to build a just and peace­ful world.


Ro­hingya refugees Si­tara Begum and her son Mo­hammed Ab­bas, who are in the list for repa­tri­a­tion, wait at a refugee camp on Nov. 15.

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