Dec 16, 2008

What's the Point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Pierre Hazan, an expert on international justice issues, questions the use of these texts. Based on a new secular religion, they struggle to live up to expectations.

Le Temps, Geneva, 03/12/2008

Pierre Hazan - On 10 December [2008], the UN celebrated the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. The paradox of the situation is clear: never has the rhetoric around human rights been so loud, yet the situation of the world has rarely been so sombre. After the crimes in Darfur, we are now seeing this year massacres in Congo, where four million people have died either as a direct or indirect result of armed conflict over the past few years.

Translated in more than 300 languages, the universal declaration of human rights is one of the texts which has strongly influenced the second half of the 20th century. Several national constitutions have taken up articles included in it, countless national and international courts have been inspired by it when making judgements and countless groups have used it to back up their demands.

The resonance of the 30 articles in the universal declaration can be seen in the extraordinary power that the text has to mobilise people and NGOs since it was adopted in 1948. Although it has no enforcement powers, the universal declaration has in the biting words of Jeanne Kirkpatrick, an American practitioner of realpolitik, more influence than "a letter addressed to Santa Claus". The declaration ensures that everyone is aware that every human being has inalienable rights. To quote Hannah Arendt, even "those without rights have rights".

But the expectations and the public support have also had a perverse effect: governments use the language of human rights to justify their positions and foreign policy actions. This has taken diverse forms. The typical example - but it is far from being the only one - is that of the Bush adminstration which justifies the often shameful means used in the fight against terrorism in the name of the defence and promotion of democracy and of human rights.

Governments often consider human rights a moveable feast, favouring certain ones to the detriment of others, according to their interests at the time and their ideologies. This explains both the success and ambiguity of human rights, everyone finding something to support their position. During the Cold War, the West highlighted political and civil rights, while countries from the communist block (who abstained from adopting the universal convention of human rights in 1948) favoured economic, social and cultural rights.

In the immediate period after the Cold War, Asian countries highlighted the need to recognise « values » that they understood as human rights, and criticised a Western dominated interpretation. The debate over the cartoons depicting Mohammed is a continuation of this debate and Members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference today want to extend the definition of incitement to racial and religious hatred, modifying at one fell swoop the limits to freedom of expression. This will be one of the big debates at the Durban conference which takes place in Geneva next April.

Behind the celebrations and the facade of unanimity over human rights, the reality is much more complex. Interpreted by governments depending on their ideological focus and national interest, subjected to the games of ever changing alliances at the UN, human rights are however hailed as a new secular religion and have been invested with an importance that far exceeds their ability to influence.

In spite of their misuse and the demagogy of many politicians who hold up human rights as an example only to forget them when it comes to applying them, they do constitute a set of principles which can never be totally dismissed as long as people continue to demand they are respected. Should we therefore see a sign of hope or of despair in the inclusion on the special shuttle Endeavour of a copy of the universal declaration of human rights?