A beacon of hope?
When my wife and I lived in Montreal, back in the days of having just one child and an apartment, we lived near a park named after Canada's former Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Mr Trudeau was famous, or infamous, depending on your view, for bringing many changes to Canada, chief among them Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its enshrinement in the country's constitution.
Perhaps it is appropriate then, given Trudeau's emphasis on rights, that in the middle of this park sits a monument to John Peters Humphrey, the principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mr Humphrey, born in Hampton, New Brunswick, was a transplant to Montreal, spending many years studying and teaching law at McGill University's Faculty of Law.
Yet Mr Humphrey is best known for the work he did at the beginning of his 20-year career at the United Nations, drafting the Universal Declaration, along with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacques Maritain. The genesis of the Declaration was the just-witnessed atrocities of the Second World War and the desire for a better future. As the document, adopted on December 10, 1948, turns 60, it is worth asking if it has lived up to its goals and is still relevant.
To begin with the positives: the Declaration today still stands for many, especially in oppressed lands, as a beacon, a marker or standard to hold governments to. Ronald Regan noted this in a 1989 State Department document: "For people of good will around the world, that document is more than just words: It's a global testament of humanity, a standard by which any humble person on Earth can stand in judgment of any government on Earth."
It is easy for me, in the relatively free country of Canada, or in much of the Anglosphere, to feel that much of the Declaration is redundant. My fundamental rights, for the most part, are respected by government and protected by the rule of law. This is not the case for Irene Petras and Andrew Makoni, the leaders of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, a group that provides legal support for victims of state-endorsed persecution.
For people such as Petra and Makoni, living on the front lines of real human rights abuses under Robert Mugabe, the statement from Article 1 that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," is of greater significance in their situation than it is to me. The failure in this instance is that the Declaration is completely unenforceable; no sovereign nation is bound to it except by force of shame, a force that holds no sway with President Mugabe.
It was never the intention of the drafters for the Declaration to be an enforceable document, unlike Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the American Bill of Rights. In fact, the day before adoption by the United Nations General Assembly, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights that drafted the document, said, "It is not and does not purport to be a statement of law or of legal obligation. It is a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms."
Among the rights and freedoms spelled out in the document are the right to life, liberty, and security of person, the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, the right to equal protection of the law and the right to a fair trial. The first section of the Declaration also declares slavery, torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment to be prohibited. Much of articles 1 through 11 would be easily recognisable to residents of Western democratic countries; the articles mirror statements from their own charters. Yet it is obvious that many nations around the globe choose to ignore these sections on fundamental rights -- if not the entire document.
Reading through the full text of the Declaration, you get the feeling it was written by a committee. The document lacks the flair of the American Declaration of Independence with its "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal"; it resembles more the French Declaration on the Rights of Man -- without its elegance.
The Declaration also fails by adding a number of articles that, while they may sound nice, are not rights at all. Article 24 states that: "Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay." This hardly lives up to Thomas Paine's view from Rights of Man that "Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants." While a short work week and a paid holiday in the sun may be something we all strive for, or even negotiate in our terms of work, it is hardly as fundamental as freedom of religion, belief or expression.
Furthermore, some articles sound more like a social policy put forward by a political party than a statement of fundamental rights and freedoms that our forbears fought and died for. The Declaration makes the claim that free, public and compulsory education is a right. There is also a claim that everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living, to food and health. There is a claim to protection from unemployment. As with other rights such as a right to life and liberty, none of these wants masquerading as rights are enforceable -- but consider the consequences if they were.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, remarked in 1981 that much of the Declaration fell into the positive rights area requiring government to act in certain areas, "For every goal toward which human beings have worked, there is in our time a 'right'. Nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of 'entitlements', which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite of their authors. The fact that such 'entitlements' may be without possibility of realization does not mean they are without consequences."
To put these rights, or entitlements as Kirkpatrick calls them, into practice would drastically alter many of our societies. Would a government bound to provide protection from unemployment be required to provide a job to every unemployed person regardless of cost? What about providing a standard of living and food? Is the state required then to provide for all your necessities regardless of your personal situation, your own work ethic or lack thereof? If so, such rights would take us well past looking after the weakest in our society unable to care for themselves.
Another former American Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, once commented that the UN headquarters could lose 10 of its 38 storeys and it would not make a difference to the performance of the organization. The same could be said of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I would argue that trimming the document would make it a stronger statement of what we, at least we in the West, hold dear.
Yet for all the faults of the document, I would rather have it in the public conscience and discourse than not. I'll return to my earlier quote from Ronald Reagan, "For people of good will around the world, that document is more than just words: It's a global testament of humanity, a standard by which any humble person on Earth can stand in judgment of any government on Earth." Well said, Mr President. I no longer live near that park with the memorial to John Peters Humphrey, but I will think of him and what his work has done as the world celebrates the 60th anniversary of this beacon to the world.
Brian Lilley is Ottawa Bureau Chief for radio stations 1010 CFRB Toronto and CJAD 800 Montreal. He is also Associate Editor at Mercatornet.
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