Blog

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Monday 10th December this year marks the 70 anniversary of the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights by the UN general assembly. The declaration of human rights was heavily influenced by several intellectuals at the time who were followers of the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, notably Charles Malik and Jacques Maritain. This blog has previously looked at the intellectual backdrop to the UDHR, but what I would like to focus on here is the position of the UDHR in human society and its importance.

The date of the adoption of the UDHR, 1948, is significant. The second world war had just ended, the world was coming to terms with what had happened, and the horrors of the holocaust were becoming more and more apparent. Historically Germany was a nation with many great philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, artists etc. Many of its mighty dead helped to educate humanity and bring enlightenment to the world; yet as is clear from the history of the 20th Century, that was no guarantee against the rise of Nazism.

The myth of the enlightenment was that with greater intellectual development and knowledge, there would be greater progress. But no matter how intelligent and understanding we are, the responsibility for acting in a morally worthy manner does not necessarily go with it. Indeed, it is an ever greater tragedy when a great mind falls into moral turpitude since such a great mind should have known better. And the same can be said for any nation with an illustrious past. What the second world war and indeed the 20th Century in general taught us is that the myth of enlightenment is precisely that – a myth. No matter how intelligent and advanced humanity becomes, we still have the propensity for great evil; indeed more so, because the more advanced we become, the more efficient our means for perpetrating evil becomes.

This realisation was one of the driving factors behind the UDHR – enlightenment is not enough to curtail the possible descent into chaos for humanity. With that in mind, it is prudent to devise a set of human rights as a standard by which human dignity is recognised and states are regulated in their treatment of their members: ‘…disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…’. Effectively, should a state sign up to the UDHR it would be making the statement to the international community that it sees its members as having dignity and will undertake to protect the dignity of its members, or else be held accountable to the international community and not be blight on the conscience of mankind.

It is easy to go through the UDHR and see how the rights it lists are derived (see Human Rights and Human Dignity) but there is one article of the UDHR that is often overlooked, and that is article 30, the final article. This article is not  a significantly meaty article which lays down a fundamental right such as the right to life, freedom, marriage etc, rather it is as follows:

‘Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein’.

It is understandable that the casual reader would gloss over this article. Having just nailed down the fundamental rights that all humans possess in virtue of being human,  the casual reader may believe this article to be an afterthought suitable only to the legal mind. But if we consider this article, it is supremely important. This is because what it declares is that one cannot take some right in the UDHR and wield it to deny some other right to another person. If one is human, then one has these rights; to deny somebody some of these rights is to deny that they are fully human, and so hold that only some and not all of the rights apply. But this was not the vision of the UDHR: ‘…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. Human beings are not a mixture of full and partial humans – they are either human or not. Hence one cannot say ‘because I have a right to X you do not have a right to Y’; this bears upon contemporary issues pertinent to the right to life.

It is undeniable that the unborn are just as human as the fully mature; the process of being born does not magically change one’s ontological status from non-human to human. Hence the unborn child has just as much a right to life as any other human being. Accordingly, the simple protection of the unborn in law does not conflict with the UDHR, in which case one who wants the law to provide for abortion cannot claim that one is entitled to it as a human right, or that one’s human rights are being undermined through lack of access to abortion. Consistent with article 30 then, one cannot deny the unborn its right to life by invoking some other right listed in the UDHR. And so it follows that all attempts to introduce abortion will be attempts that are inconsistent with the UDHR and inconsistent with human rights in general, the most fundamental of which is the right to life. Genuine human rights apply to all humans, and the moment one starts saying that such rights only apply to these humans and not to those ones one denies ‘the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’.

Dr Gaven Kerr

Blog

Human Rights and Human Dignity

We are accustomed these days to rights talk. Rights have a significant degree of authority behind them. The European Convention of Human Rights is a foundational document ratified by a number of European countries. The concept of rights contained therein appears to command the assent of a number of Western democracies. Not only that, when an appeal to some human right (or the violation of such a right) is made it is often capable of putting to rest most social and political discussions.

Nevertheless, there remains some confusion over the nature of human rights, and whilst public discussions may often appeal to rights and rights talk, such discussions are rarely ever principled or follow a logical train of thought. Not only that, significant public voices addressing the issue of rights in relation to abortion, including representatives of Amnesty international, have stated that one is only a subject of rights if such rights are afforded to the individual by some governing body. Hence, if, on their reading, the unborn are not afforded legal protection, then they are not subject to rights and human rights do not apply to them.

This confusion quickly clears up when we actually read the human rights documents, that is, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. The UDHR is quite clear in linking the ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ with human dignity, and the ECHR follows the UDHR in listing those rights that pertain to all humans in virtue of their dignity.

It is human dignity that grounds rights, and human dignity is something that one possesses not in virtue of being a member of a privileged group, such as all those who have been born, or some positive law granting one legal entitlements; rather, human dignity is something one has in virtue of being human. This dignity flows from human nature, and it does so precisely because human nature is rational nature. Human beings are the kind of things that are rational, whether they exercise their rationality or not. Hence they are the kinds of things capable of determining their own ends (regardless of whether they do so or not), and as so capable they themselves must not be the instrument for anybody else’s end; for that would be to treat them as less than human. Hence every human being is to be treated in light of the dignity that they have; regardless of the legal recognition or otherwise of such dignity. Indeed, it is precisely because humans have such dignity independently of state recognition that one can criticise the state or its authorities for abuses of such dignity.

Rights primarily flow from dignity insofar as human beings must be treated in such a way that their dignity is not violated. This fundamentally entails not subjecting their lives to the will of others, in which case we have a right to life, a right not to be tortured, not to be enslaved or put into forced labour. Flowing from this freedom from being subject to the will of others humans have a right to liberty and security, a fair trial when accused, and a legal framework within which punitive measures are exercised. Being free from the will of others all humans have a right to a private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and the right to marry.

It is clear then that beginning from the principle of human dignity we draw out these various rights all of which revolve around dignity; failure to respect these rights is a failure to treat humans as fully human. Effectively what these rights ensure are the conditions by which we can live lives in accord with our human nature. In focusing human rights on human dignity, the drafters of the human rights documents did not envisage human rights as things conditional upon state or legal recognition. At the time these documents were drafted Europe had just emerged from a second war which saw some serious human rights abuses, and it is doubtless that having states sign up to these rights and ensure compliance therewith is a good thing. But compliance or otherwise with these human rights by a state does not entail that one is not subject to these rights. Hence, regardless of whether or not a state grants to humans or a certain class of humans, such as the unborn, these rights, those human beings nevertheless have these rights. Any sort of rights talk which classifies humans in one way or another and attributes rights to one class and not to another is absurd and contrary to the nature of human rights which all humans have in virtue of being human.

Dr Gaven Kerr