It’s no secret, I hope, that I believe that there are four, just four absolutely fundamental rights, and respect for them and adherence to them is what separates civil peoples, cultures and states from the
barbaric less civilized ones. Those four rights are:
- Life; )
- Liberty; and ) all three defined in late 17th century Britain by John Locke
- Property; ) and
- Privacy, as defined in late 19th century America by Brandeis and Warren.
Other rights exist, of course, but they are all either derived from those four ~ in other words the essence of e.g. freedom of association or freedom on conscience are found in Locke’s definition of Liberty ~ or they are highly restricted rights, like freedom of speech which exists, but only within carefully (or, sometimes, as in the 21st century in Justin Trudeau’s Canada, carelessly) prescribed bounds.
I have, also, just recently, described the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights “abominably silly.” I did that because, as I explained, while the first dozen or so rights are fine the ones that follow are, by and large, what I call “rubbish rights,” that are the aspirations of social progressives who want to build a “better” more egalitarian society.
The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, she explains, is not just a long shopping list of aspirations; rather, it came into being because “As even democracies had crumbled into ethno-nationalist tyrannies, governments voluntarily agreed to establish a system of accountability to a higher set of norms and institutions to moderate national sovereignty and majority rule when necessary … [but] … The “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,” referenced in the UDHR’s Preamble, drove the campaign for an international bill of rights championed by multiple NGOs, some of whom were bitterly disappointed when a Declaration, rather than a legally binding treaty, was produced. Their fears proved unwarranted when the Declaration procreated a plethora of human rights treaties which are legally binding, all of which recognise their UDHR parentage in their Preamble, including the European Convention on Human Rights (reflected in British law through the Human Rights Act).”
Professor Klug understands my suspicions because she reminds us that “the chief goal of the drafters, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, was to craft ‘a big idea;’ an ethical vision for a good society and a better world to shape the new era they believed was dawning. Looking to a future based on “social progress and better standards of life,” economic, social and cultural rights were given equal status to civil and political ones, recognising that freedom without the economic wherewithal to live a dignified life is no freedom at all.” My big problem is the same as the one I have with written constitutions … the UN Declaration is focused on the ideas and problems of 1940, just as the US Constitution reflects the concerns of the 1770s and the Canadian one reflects the issues of the 1960s. Thus, §18 which says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance,” is being used to suggest that some men have the right to force women and girls to wear burkas because they, those men, are teaching and observing their religious beliefs. (Perhaps that’s why Saudi Arabia was one of eight (of then 56 UN members) who abstained from voting for the Declaration.) Equally, §24 which says that “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay,” represents a constantly shifting socio-economic variable. There is plenty of evidence that leisure is good for productivity or, in other words, that after some point, extra work is unproductive. The Declaration was very much a document of its time and place ~ it was 1940s America’s aspirations for a getter world which were not and still are not the aspirations of some, even many others.
Francesca Klug says, and I agree, that “There are many ways of characterizing the UDHR, but a simple one is that its worldview was the polar opposite of the one gaining traction today. As we are again confronted with ‘strongmen’ and leaders all over the globe who thrive on divisions, it is striking how virtually every UDHR Article begins with the word ‘everyone’ … [thus, she says] … Instead of ‘make America or Britain or wherever great again’ – a perfectly imaginable response at the end of WW2 – the Declaration promoted co-operation between states and “an international order” in which human rights can be realised. Instead of a discourse about ‘taking back control’ from transnational bodies, the Declaration called time on nation states only policing themselves. ‘Higher norms,’ protected by the UN, were deemed necessary, above all, to prevent states from extinguishing the rights of minorities on the basis of the ‘will of the majority.’ Instead of asserting, that “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” (that was our [Britain’s] Prime Minister in 2016) the essence of the UDHR was to stress that we are “all members of the human family,” as the very first sentence of the Preamble puts it, and that when the chips are down, and life and liberty are at stake, humanity should always trump nationality.” That last phrase matters and, therefore, I agree with her that, seen i that light, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is about more than just progressive notions of Western social values … it is a corral, of sorts, within which different societies (animals) may be kept in relative peace and harmony, and on that basis it’s 70th anniversary was, indeed, a cause for some celebration.
Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as important as, say, Magna Carta (1215) or Simon de Montfort’s Parliament (1265) or the publication of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689)? No, of course not, the United Nations’ works is just derivative and rests, wholly and completely, on the work of others … not all of whom were even English. 😉 But it does represent an important American step forward in trying to globalize good ideas. That is especially important now, 70 years later, when we have e.g. Donald Trump and the rise of ethnonationalism and “identitarian” politics, the Declaration that Eleanor Roosevelt, John Peters Humphrey (a Canadian lawyer and scholar who specialized in human rights when it wasn’t a terribly popular field) and French jurist René Cassin and others drafted in 1948 matters even more because it says “everyone” and speaks of the “human family.” I am reminded of something that Lao Tsu said about 2,500 years ago: we “can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness … [and we] can know good as good only because there is evil;” thus we can only know what is wrong in our 21st century world because Mrs Roosevelt, Mr Humphrey and M Cassin gave us a reference point, “an ethical vision for a good society and a better world,” against which we can measure our society and world today.
My objections to the United Nations Universal declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Canadian Constitution (1982) remain the same: they are too “set” in their time and place … neither was or is, really needed in a world or a country that lives by the rule of the common law. But that doesn’t mean that it is or, rather, they are bad things and I accept Professor Francesca Klug’s different take on why the former is important, today.