A Declaration at 60: Human Rights' Wobbly History

US Embassy Marks Anniversary of UN Document

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 23, 2008 (Zenit.org).- This autumn the Romans have reaped a greater harvest than the usual grapes and olives. The seeds planted 60 years ago this year by the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights are bearing copious fruit through a series of conferences organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

The daylong forum, “For Everyone, Everywhere: Universal Human Rights and the Challenge of Diversity,” was held at the Istituto Maria Santissima Bambina on Oct. 16. The hall was packed as prelates, ambassadors, professors and students came to listen to a lineup of remarkable speakers.

While the Declaration has flourished over these six decades, its growth has been unruly, stilted in some places, while forced into hybrid hothouses in others. Benedict XVI, during his historic speech at the United Nations, pointed out some of the threats to the document in our contemporary age and the need to re-fertilize its foundations.

The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, responding to the papal invitation to re-evaluate the post-World War II human rights project, opened the conference with a paper by political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago.

Professor Elshtain vividly and poignantly explained how the universality of the Declaration has been called into question in the last few decades both by those who refer to it as a “Western document,” pertinent only to the thinking and attitudes of the European-influenced parts of the world, and by interest groups within the West itself who have begun to fragment the document, as if it were a sort of à la carte menu.

Both groups, explained Elshtain, found it easy to reinterpret the document because they chose to ignore its fundamental understanding of the dignity of the human person, Catholic social teaching’s greatest contribution to the creation of the declaration.

Common ground

The scene for the next section of the conference was set by a beautiful video produced by the embassy staff, with archival footage of the historic moment in Paris on Dec. 10, 1948, when the Declaration was approved by the U.N. General Assembly. The video featured the original members of the United Nations’ first Commission on Human Rights.

Ambassador Glendon then paid tribute to the “great generation” of diplomats who served on that commission, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. She described the Declaration’s adoption without a single dissenting vote as something of a miracle, considering the cultural diversity of the commission’s 18 members and the political minefield in which they had to work.

Relations between Russia and the West were deteriorating rapidly, Ambassador Glendon explained, and conflicts were erupting in Palestine, Greece, Korea and China. Yet only eight of the 58 member states abstained: Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the six-member Soviet bloc.

Despite the Chinese Civil War that would lead to the birth of the People’s Republic of China the year after the Declaration was adopted, one of the principal authors of the document was the Chinese delegate, the Confucian philosopher, P’eng ch’un Chang.

Remarkably, René Cassin, a French Jew who championed the State of Israel, and Lebanese delegate Charles Malik, who was the chief spokesman at the time for the Arab League, managed to find a common ground to work fruitfully together on the Declaration under emotionally charged conditions.

What happened next

Harvest of the wisdom of many cultures, works of many different hands, and accepted by 48 nations, the Declaration certainly seemed universal when it was adopted. What has since happened to its ability to speak to all men?

Ambassador Glendon pointed out that certain authoritarian regimes began to lay the charge of “Western cultural imperialism” at the door of the Human Rights Project. She noted that those charges were followed, ironically, by efforts of Western special interest groups to formulate their agendas in terms of human rights.

“The more the human rights project showed its power in places like South Africa and Eastern Europe,” Glendon said, “the more intense became the efforts to capture its prestige for various ends, not all of which were respectful of human dignity.”

She strongly urged all participants to celebrate this important anniversary by reading the document, not as a laundry list, but as a “whole with mutually conditioning parts.” Booklets of the document were distributed to all present.

Glendon’s remarks were followed by an extraordinary panel of speakers; Professor Hsin-chi Kuan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Habib Malik, son of U.N. delegate Charles Malik and professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, gave papers in a session chaired by the Japanese ambassador to the Holy See, Kagefumi Ueno.

These compelling interventions, frank and forthright regarding situations both past and present, supported the proposition that there was and is a universal basis for the notion of human rights that resonated with people in the East and Middle East, as well as the West.

Papers by Cardinal Renato Martino and Professor Janne Matlary helped, respectively, to relate the Declaration to Catholic social thought, and to reground it in the original vision of its authors, as an integral text with interdependent parts.

During the musical interlude in the late afternoon, Ambassador Glendon proved that some things are indeed universal, such as the capacity of the human heart to be moved by the power of song. Moist eyes were seen among both Eastern and Western visitors as the Amazing Grace Gospel Choir sang “Oh, Freedom,” and the setting of Shakespeare’s “What a Piece of Work is Man” from the musical “Hair.”

Legionary of Christ Father Thomas Williams, author of “Who Is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights,” closed the day’s session by addressing the nagging question of how to recognize a universal foundation for universal rights. Those who framed the Declaration 60 years ago drew from Catholic social teaching and the idea of human dignity to draft it, while the intervening years have hacked away at that very foundation resulting in an increasing fragmentation of the notion of universal human rights.

Father Williams contrasted two incompatible visions of human dignity: one that sees dignity as possessed by all human beings in equal measure, and only by human beings, and a second vision that admits of degrees of dignity both among humans and among other species as well. Only the first vision, the priest asserted, is capable of grounding universal human rights. Without this grounding, he warned, the Human Rights Project will continue to evolve into a simple list of special interests determined by consensus and subject to the power plays of pressure groups.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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