On the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Originally written on 10 December 2008, 60 years after the Declaration was first adopted at Palais de Chaillot, Paris.

The word “human” sends out shockwaves; reverberations that quiver with expectations and disappointments. “To err is human,” Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Criticism, “to forgive divine.” But just before this often (mis)quoted line, Pope says more fully:

To what base Ends, and by what abject Ways,
Are Mortals urg’d thro’ Sacred Lust of praise!
Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Human; to Forgive, Divine.

Pope could not have been more wrong. It is not “divine” to forgive – there is no celestial force needed to warrant forgiveness. To err and forgive are both human and only human. Of course, in this context Pope was referring to the great power of forgiveness, as “great power” could be synonymous with “divine”. It is in this way, and only this way, that forgiveness receives the mantle of divinity. And nowhere is this “great power” of human interaction and fraternity so boldly put forward, so beautifully contended, and so carefully laid out than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Today is its 60th birthday and seems as good a time as any to reflect on its articles, its implications and its necessity for living. This is worthy of a book and the great AC Grayling* has done just that (for most of his publishing career). It is a sad reflection that people do not have or know the UDHR. Of course, we all know of it, but how many realise its importance? As a suggestion, I would ask all those to follow the links I’ve given above and print out the UDHR, stick it on a wall and quietly reflect on it.

Let us briefly see why it is important. The Preamble begins in the steadfast gleam against the bullying of divine and political tyrannies from our past:

Whereas 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,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

Humans first before words, ideas and opinions. There is no propitiation toward a totalitarian dictatorship in the sky; there is no grovelling at the feet of men or gods or statues; there is no discrimination or rejection of these rights to others, based on colour, creed or country. “All members of the human family” only stresses everyone and the inherent fraternity of human beings (and scientifically provable relation of all living things to a common ancestor).

Here’s the beautiful thing: These Articles can be contested (Article 1: “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.”; Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”). These are not resolute, divinely given rights – they are, by definition, human rights. We may contend on each article, we may perhaps find some ambiguous – perhaps we may not fully condone others.

For example, Part 3, of Article 26 states: “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” Yet, when we consider the resolute poison that can be fed to children, given their credulity and trust in elders; when we see the damage done to those who suffer from psychological disorders from “hell” and neuroses passed down from the Bronze-Age; when we consider, for example, that private schools can teach that “Evolution is just a theory” or “Evolution is wrong!”, does this Article really sound appropriate? Should this Article really be adopted universally? In Africa, children are still taught to see witches and to be viewed as witches (and then murdered out of fear). Thus, in this light we may question and be sceptical.

Indeed, my hope is that we scan this document for ideas we find unsuitable. Taking this example of Article 26, Part 3, there may be good and bad reasons for employing it. We may discuss and debate, be open to change of policies. This seems perfectly reasonable and at least we can all agree on this process, if not the Article’s stipulation itself. (A good case could be made, using the other Articles to justify Article 26. For example, the right of every individual to be free from oppression.) The beautiful thing is just this: It is a human declaration and we all know it. By being human, we easily sit with it and can shift the gates of appraisal, when Articles find favour or dismissal.

By contrast, a declaration given by a god, numbering only 10 is not amenable to change. The 10 Commandments, or Decalogue, is found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy (of the “stone the non-virgin on her wedding night” fame). There are sometimes noted to be more than 10 but that is beside the point. The 10 Commandments demand the worship of this god, Yahweh. This command to worship and grovelling takes up large parts of the commandments:

1. I am the Lord your God

2. You shall have no other gods before me

3. You shall not make for yourself an idol

4. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God

Correctly described by Christopher Hitchens as the “throat clearing” part of the commandments, it then launches into a self-righteous expose on the idiocy of human sensibility. As if to say, “by the way, murder is wrong”, “by the way, stealing is wrong”, “by the way, respect your parents.” There is nothing incredible, beautiful or revolutionary in the Decalogue and, nowadays, quite insulting to the majority of people. Yet, it finds its place in many important arenas and public places. Nowhere in the Decalogue, by the way, is there any mention of compassion or respect (I’m not focusing on the New Testament in this article and using the Decalogue simply as a contrast to the UDHR. I expect critics will mention Jesus and his lovely message).

One list, from a random desert god, from a pantheon of others, who chose a group of people, who weren’t in Egypt, to escape from Egypt, demanding to worship “Him” who helped them escape from a land they were never captive in the first place. It seems perfectly silly to me. Yet it is “divine”, it is not “human” and – instead of being rejected or, at least, changed – it is held to be perfect because it is divine. This is backwards and illogical. It seems no fault that the Decalogue is exactly what Joseph Kony’s The Lord’s Resistance Army uses as its basis for child-soldiers and zombie factories; it is a disgusting affront to human rights and sensibilties.

Kony is of course a soft target. But think of a scenario where someone using the UDHR, the basis of which stems from the writings of Jefferson, Paine, the intense fraternity explained by Russell, Kurtz and Mandela and Desmond Tutu, is going to turn tyrannical and bloodthirsty. It is not impossible, but it seems unlikely. Why then this paradox: the blatantly human declaration receives openness to change, discussions, and dismissals but finds little to no acceptance amongst tyrants – But one that is “divine” from a “loving god” can easily be imagined in the hands of any raging warlord (as the examples of any theocratic regime show).

It is the acceptance of humanity, first and forthright, that is important now. It is more important than whose theology is more correct or can prove the existence of a god. First, let us establish the peace we all want. Let the world allow the ash of war to settle. Let us help our fellow men and women (and especially children), wherever they are, to liberate them from oppression. It is not charities that will help, but the charitable spirit that keeps charities alive. But that spirit must be fostered into organisations and movements that will actualise the human behind the beggar, that will liberate the human from the “untouchable” he or she is. This, and not giving them money or constant supplies of food, will help more (indeed, charities are needed for the basic living but the long term goal of human restoration will be alongside and not despite charitable organisations. Just in case the reader thinks me too sceptical of charity!).

Russell said “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” And this ghost smiles over the echoes of UDHR. It is a sense of hope, a sense of gratitude that we gaze onto the lines of UDHR. Six decades have passed since its appearance and still we are nowhere close to liberating our fellow man. But I am optimistic it will happen: We are, by our very nature, compassionate beings, I sincerely believe that. We must begin by allowing us to channel such reserves of hope and love and compassion as we have, into arenas which are barren of such qualities. Guided by knowledge, we will get there and with the spur of, if not love, then empathy. Even if there is a god, it seems he would be more proud of us creating a “brotherhood of man” for the sake of them being fellow beings than forcing them into the shadow of worship.

On both levels, every one wins. And it is this notion of the liberated human that is the undercurrent for the longstanding Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

* – Grayling has a beautiful series of blogs, concerning the different articles of the UDHR, avalaible at The Guardian.

2 thoughts on “On the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  1. Pingback: More on the UN Resolution « Skepoet At Crossroads of Critical Thinking and the Humanities.

  2. Pingback: Being Part of the “One Law for All” Campaign « Tauriq Moosa - Columns, Op-Eds, Articles and Essays

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