UN paper sets out principles of equality


(Published: December 14, 2007 in the Anchorage Daily News)

Dec. 10 was the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in Paris in 1948. Modeled somewhat on the American Declaration of Independence and an inspiration to people everywhere, the Universal Declaration proclaims itself a guarantee of equal, basic rights to all people. It is not a binding treaty. Rather, it's a pledge, one that governments are free to scorn, but which stands as a desideratum for life, a statement of what ought to be. As such, it has been brought to bear to embarrass and pressure regimes that deny human rights both individually and collectively.

Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, the fundamental guarantees of the document include the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to an education; the right to participate fully in cultural life; freedom from torture or cruel, inhumane treatment or punishment; and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Analysis of the language it uses is instructive for the role of America in the world today, and our prospects for creating a global hegemony on our terms. The primary set of rights echoes Jefferson's words in the American Declaration of Independence, copied essentially from John Locke, and expressing a formative principle of the 18th century European enlightenment: essential human equality. But where Jefferson asserted that "all men" are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," the Universal Declaration states that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

The source of the rights then enumerated is left implicit, unstated. That change, less subtle than might appear, represents two centuries of thought on the question of universality, or absolute truth. It also reflects the global politics of religion.

For not everyone agrees with the primary assumptions of the Universal Declaration. Born in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it was an overt, necessary rejection of the justification offered for the systematic atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime. Even in the face of that nightmare, however, disagreement over the nature of truth mandated compromise in order to assure that a majority of member nations would sign the pledge. Post-modern thought questions both the conviction of absolute truth and the existence of God. It raises the question of whether human beings can achieve tolerance and equality on their own, coming to a mutual respect of each other's dignity and rights through reason and natural conscience alone, which the Universal Declaration asserts is "the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world." When he wrote "Imagine," John Lennon had concluded that we can. Others are less confident.

Still other disagreements have prevented unanimity on the question of rights. Non-Western countries expressed misgivings about the Universal Declaration from the beginning, and on Aug. 5, 1990, 45 foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference met to sign the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. While the Cairo Declaration forbids "any discrimination on the basis of race, color, language, belief, sex, religion, political affiliation, social status or other considerations," and proclaims the sanctity of human life, it recognizes only such rights as are consistent with sharia, Islamic religious law. So, while the equal dignity of women is acknowledged, for example, the equal rights of women are not. Freedom of speech is restricted to those expressions that are not in contravention of Islamic law. The Cairo Declaration proclaims freedom of religion with considerably less latitude than the Universal Declaration.

The West danced to the tune of the U.S. in 1948 and John Lennon was only 8 years old, and perhaps still Anglican. There is not the same unanimity within the West today, still less between East and West. The true universality of the U.N. declaration was probably always unlikely, and is a dimmer prospect now. And U.S. global hegemony is a similarly broken dream.

Yet, the unenforceable Universal Declaration is an important human ideal, pulling us toward our better natures, in whatever cultural contexts we live. It's probably the best we can achieve, and we could do much worse.


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