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The Universal Declaration on Human Rights at 75: Does It Still Work?

Posted on Sunday, December 10, 2023
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by David P. Deavel
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AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel

Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in English), Lake Success, New York. November 1949.
Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in English), Lake Success, New York. November 1949. (FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

The United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) 75 years ago today on December 10, 1948. In the aftermath of the Second World War’s atrocities, the acceptance of this document of the United Nations Human Rights Commission was, like the United Nations itself, seen as a hopeful development in a world gone mad. Though there were abstentions from some Middle East and Soviet bloc countries, none of the nations represented voted against it.

The UDHR went on to inspire two international covenants that bound the signing countries to recognize human rights, not to mention a number of courts and other international bodies dedicated to protecting human rights, and it is seen by many as one of the bases of contemporary international law. There is a reason for this: it is coherent because it taps into deep roots of natural law and human relations.

But three key factors prevent it from having a deeper impact. First, one of the aspects that allowed for its embrace in 1948—its refusal to ground the rights it identifies in any religious or philosophical understanding—may well be what leads to its fading importance. Second, and likely related, changes in the way many think about the nature of human rights have distorted its meaning in a way that has led to myriad claims of all kinds of spurious rights. Third, on the flip side of the second, though liberals and even leftists are celebrating this document officially, it’s not clear that they accept many of the rights proclaimed.

For those who have never read it, the document is well worth a look. Though conservatives might blanch at reading something that was spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt, the document itself is quite good. Roosevelt’s two original co-writers were the Chinese diplomat Pen-Chun Chang and the Lebanese Catholic Charles Malik. They were later joined by Canadian jurist John Humphrey and French diplomat René Cassin as well as a number of others.

The preamble to the UDHR begins with the propositions that “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” and that the articles contained in the declaration ought to be recognized as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”

Articles 1 and 2 set out the universal character of the nature of human beings as possessing “reason and conscience” and being “free and equal in dignity and rights”—no matter their “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Other articles forthrightly name “the right to life, liberty, and security of person” (3), the right to not be kept in servitude or slavery (4), recognition of equality before the law and equal protection by the law (7), right to marriage and the right to give or withhold consent to marriage (16), the right to property and not to have arbitrary seizures of it (17), and many more.  

Those who have studied the American Constitution will see that many of the protections in the Bill of Rights—including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion—are here affirmed. And both rights and duties are affirmed. This is a document that sets out a summary of what the natural law demands of governments with regard to ordinary people as well as of what ordinary people are expected to do for their nations. Though many of the articles are certainly at the least debatable, it is nevertheless a document with serious strengths.

Yet those weaknesses were noticed from the beginning. In an essay as part of a symposium on the UDHR at Law & Liberty, Jordan Ballor and Trey Dimsdale cite the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s recollections about a UNESCO meeting about human rights where “someone expressed astonishment that certain champions of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on a list of these rights. ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘we agree about the rights but on condition no one asks why.’” Though Maritain, who was an indirect influence on the writing of the UDHR, was hopeful about the practical agreements, Ballor and Dimsdale observe that he too “recognized the difficulties faced with articulating a doctrine of universal rights that could be assented to by what he called ‘many schools of thought.’”

The reality is that the document is built on the western philosophical and religious understanding of the world with some assists by traditional Chinese philosophy. Malik was a scholar of Thomas Aquinas and was assisted in reframing some of the terms by Chun, who was trained in traditional Confucian philosophy. Yet in forsaking a philosophical or theological framework, it can seem to a modern, secularized world that has left behind Thomas and Confucius, as simply a set of ideas from a different age.

Another Law & Liberty contributor, Daniel Philpott, suggests that the fate of the UDHR is dependent on whether its claims are enunciated as part of the natural law. One might argue that even that is not enough since most people aren’t philosophers. British legal scholar David Griffiths notes in another symposium that it may well be that specifically religious language will be needed to keep this alive. “While the UDHR and international human rights law send few pulses racing, religious language provides a way for people to express their deepest yearnings for a fairer and more just world.”

That the Declaration had to be non-specific with regard to its intellectual framework didn’t just mean that its inspiration or grounding might seem obscure. It also meant that its language could be coopted and manipulated. Jordan and Ballor cite the French political philosopher Pierre Manent’s worries about the dangers of thinking about rights outside of that philosophical context of the natural law. Another Law & Liberty contributor, legal scholar Adam MacLeod, argues that modern rights talk did indeed go astray when it left behind natural law thinking about human rights: “It stipulates the desirability of some end and then confers on it the status of a human right.” Alas, MacLeod notes that some of this confusion is in the UDHR itself. “Alongside true natural rights such as the duty of the state to protect the natural family (Article 16) and the duty to never compel any person to belong to an association (Article 20), the Declaration lists contingent entitlements such as rights to ‘social security’ (Article 22) and ‘protection against unemployment (Article 23).’”

Such mistakes in thinking have led to the ever-expanding list of “rights” that we are perpetually told we must respect. And given the ambiguity about whether these rights are negative (such that one ought not prevent others from exercising them) or positive (such that one is obligated to provide for their exercise), we have a big mess. Even if I am (hypothetically) obligated to allow someone to get gender-mutilating surgeries in order to affirm what he thinks is his “gender,” do I have to pay for it?

And in fact, even as these spurious rights proliferate, too many moderns on the left are inclined to deny the rights that really are natural rights. That obligation of the state to protect the natural family in Article 16 is something that is now widely denied. The freedom “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (18); the freedom “to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (19); and the freedom and indeed “prior right” of parents “to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (26)—all these are widely denied or at least challenged in the very western states that saw their recognition.

All of these difficulties make the prospect of the UDHR’s long-term relevance to modern life tenuous. Many countries without the religious and philosophical heritage to ground the Declaration’s better parts simply ignore it anyway. Meanwhile those who do have this heritage are seeing their ruling classes follow the more dubious claims it makes and reject the true ones. We can be glad for those who put this document together as well as for the good it has done. But not everyone agrees on the rights anymore. Too few want to ask why they don’t agree anymore. Too many want to keep using the terms of rights and obligations without defining them.

The Declaration may not be enough to unite nations anymore. But it may well provide a good place to trace our way back to earlier ways of thinking and belief about the dignity of human persons and the rights they bear. Perhaps on this anniversary that is enough.

David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Follow him on X @davidpdeavel.

 

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jimm
jimm
7 months ago

Considering that the United Nations is worthless, no. A universal declaration eminating from a useless body, without any enforcement capability, has no meaning whatsoever. The United Nations is like a cheap tire. It looks good but folds as soon as the rubber meets the road.

Harry
Harry
7 months ago

Get the UN (all communist membership) the hell out of the US.

mgoode
mgoode
7 months ago

It does not matter a sow’s ear how “good” the document is. It is the UN that is the problem. There is no good produced by inter-nationalism, PERIOD. It is a anti-human organization.

Rob citizenship
Rob citizenship
7 months ago

International law is of great importance. This article you wrote here Mr.Deavel I do believe is a great contribution to the history of international law. I have been a Reagan Conservative since 1980 and the 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative are something that are of as much value as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . This Declaration was actually something very positive in 1948 considering everything that happened during the second world war. If is considered to be less than perfect then it can be added to a very long list of things and people that are flawed in some way, less than perfect. Regarding the United Nations , it has gone off course since it was founded in 1948 , needs to have a major course correction . It is something that could provide hope for a better world if it had a standard way of defending those human rights it is supposed to be tasked with defending. Too many things have happened that have come up very short in taking the right stance on major issues involving human rights. There were some good things done by the U.N. but there have been negative influences that have detracted from it’s ability to do what it was designed to do. In navigation terms , it is not a reliable aid to navigation in terms of guiding international relations ,so with dedication , and an effort by people who believe there can be a New United Nations — there could be something positive to look forward to at some point in the future. Until that happens as I mentioned earlier a philosophy such as the Eleven Principles of a Reagan Conservative will be a good standard, a belief system for ethical behavior. In the spirit of God bless America land of the free and the home of the brave . Let truth guide us and let Liberty be the watchword. Well done with this article David , there is much to consider , a great deal of thought to be given to the issues presented. It is good that you presented them. With respect.

lawrence greenberg
lawrence greenberg
7 months ago

The real question we should be asking is not does it still work, but did it ever work? The UN itself and all the rest of the suborganizations are not – and were never – what we have all been led to believe. What is on paper is one thing, but the reality is quite another.
From Day One, we were all told the UN was created to accomplish a wide range of noble goals: to end war, to end hunger, to end poverty, to ensure universal education, and in general to improve the human condition. It all sounds wonderful – but that is just a cover. The UN was created by the globalists to be the nexus, the headquarters, of The One World Government/The New World Order. Go through the history of the UN since 1945 and see for yourself. And for those who don’t know this little tidbit, the land on which the UN headquarters in Manhattan is situated, arguably one of the most valuable pieces of land on the planet, was donated by the Rockefellers, one of the leading globalist families.

Chris
Chris
7 months ago

I can’t help but draw a comparison to the Tower of Babel. Men took it upon themselves to prove they were equal to God and the resulting situation is a mess of division, doing the opposite of what they had hoped, and exposing their folly.

Morbious
Morbious
7 months ago

Lets consider current events. A bunch of unarmed jews were treated to the most barbarous savagery. The few that had access to weapons fared much better. There is no better example than Israel to demonstrate the reality that only arms and the willingness and ability to use them guarantee drawing another breath. Remember this as you watch the treason party at home attempting to disarm us.

Theresa Coughlin
Theresa Coughlin
7 months ago

Does the Declaration on Human Rights work? No, it doesn’t. Just like everything about the UN does, it useless.

Ben Ray
Ben Ray
6 months ago

When the US starts talking about Human Rights… we need to do some sole searching of our own behavior. Just looking at the southern border with human trafficking, so many coming as indentured to cartels, drugs, unaccompanied children… We are also facing more interference and control over private citizens, parents, churches, elections, etc. by a weaponized government. While schools are failing our children. Thousand languish on our streets homeless, mental illness, alone and dying.
We need to fix our own house first.

Tim Toroian
Tim Toroian
7 months ago

Kindling.

Kyle Buy you some guns,and learn how to shoot
Kyle Buy you some guns,and learn how to shoot
7 months ago

Does it still work. ???? It never worked to start with. . Kyle L.

Patriot Bill
Patriot Bill
7 months ago

The world has no justice anymore. Fiction is truth, truth is lies.
Without common sense, what does it matter

ol ex jarhesd
ol ex jarhesd
7 months ago

IT did not work in 1949! Never has worked! Undid not actually support this document. A few OFMANY original members that’d not, “niversal character of the nature of human beings as possessing “reason and conscience” and being “free and equal in dignity and rights”—no matter their “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” 
Red China, Saudi Arabia, USSR.

This document was a sham.

Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
7 months ago

Accepting a UN document about universal human rights when they let countries like Iran and Russia on their Human Rights Board is like attending a domestic abuse class taught by Scott Petersen.

Dennis Math
Dennis Math
7 months ago

Of course the declaration still works!! Now, lets go gut some Palestinian children!!

JPop
JPop
7 months ago

Danger! Danger, Will Robinson….The WHO is offering their opinion again!!!

Joe McHugh
Joe McHugh
7 months ago

The premise for establishing the United Nations in the first place was to bring about peace and to promote human rights. That idea was doomed to failure because of the human attraction to the seven sins of humanity. Whether considering the rights of individuals, or the rights of the less powerful countries, the opportunity to corrupt the goal of the U.N. was foreseeable by the cynics, and finally realized by every one else.
No one really believes that the U.N. has a positive basis anymore. One of the few reasons to tolerate its existence is that it is a place to voice concerns about negative government actions. Even if the U.N. is helpless to mandate justice and peace, the discussions about the good and bad behaviors of countries exposes the bad actors.
On the other hand, I suggest that the U.N. be re located to Brussels, Belgium. Once situated in Europe it could be ignored by North America. The United States, however, would need to keep sending its ambassador to attend the U.N. meetings to veto any mischief that the bad countries try to perpetrate.

anna hubert
anna hubert
7 months ago

Joke is on us only no one is laughing How very apt that the worthless piece of trash is held up by the wife of a man who by kissing Stalin’s ring and butt assured that those very rights will be trampled on and abused

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
7 months ago

NOT with UN Today vs then NO it cant work

Rik
Rik
7 months ago

No, it’s your comments that “sux”

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