Human Rights: A Letter to Santa Claus?

BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 24 December 2012

John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 48 nations voted for adoption, while 8 nations abstained from voting. Not a single state voted against the Declaration. In addition, the General Assembly decided to continue work on the problem of implementing human rights. The preamble of the Declaration stated that it was intended “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”

Articles 1 and 2 of the Declaration state that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights”, and that everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms mentioned in the Declaration without distinctions of any kind. Neither race color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property or social origin must make a difference.

The Declaration states that everyone has a right to life, liberty and security of person and property. Slavery and the slave trade are prohibited, as well as torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments. All people must be equal before the law, and no person must be subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. In criminal proceedings an accused person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty by an impartial public hearing where all necessary provisions have been made for the defense of the accused.

No one shall be subjected to interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence. Attacks on an individual’s honor are also forbidden. Everyone has the right of freedom of movement and residence within the borders of a state, the right to leave any country, including his own, as well as the right to return to his own country. Every person has the right to a nationality and cannot be arbitrarily deprived of his or her nationality.

All people of full age have a right to marry and to establish a family. Men and women have equal rights within a marriage and at its dissolution, if this takes place. Marriage must require the full consent of both parties.

The Declaration also guarantees freedom of religion, of conscience, and of opinion and expression, as well as freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Everyone is entitled to participate in his or her own government, either directly or through democratically chosen representatives. Governments must be based on the will of the people, expressed in periodic and genuine elections with universal and equal suffrage. Voting must be secret.

Everyone has the right to the economic, social and cultural conditions needed for dignity and free development of personality. The right to work is affirmed. The job shall be of a person’s own choosing, with favorable conditions of work, and remuneration consistent with human dignity, supplemented if necessary with social support. All workers have the right to form and to join trade unions.

Article 25 of the Declaration states that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, together with social services. All people have the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood or old age. Expectant mothers are promised special care and assistance, and children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection. Everyone has the right to education, which shall be free in the elementary stages. Higher education shall be accessible to all on the basis of merit. Education must be directed towards the full development of the human personality and to strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Education must promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, racial and religious groups, and it must further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

A supplementary document, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the 12th of December, 1989. Furthermore, in July 2010, the General Assembly passed a resolution affirming that everyone has the right to clean drinking water and proper sanitation.

Many provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example Article 25, might be accused of being wishful thinking. In fact, Jean Kirkpatrick, former US Ambassador to the UN, called the Declaration “a letter to Santa Claus”. Nevertheless, like the Millennium Development Goals, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has great value in defining the norms towards which the world ought to be striving.

It is easy to find many examples of gross violations of basic human rights that have taken place in recent years. Apart from human rights violations connected with interventions of powerful industrial states in the internal affairs of third world countries, there are many cases where governmental forces in the less developed countries have violated the human rights of their own citizens. Often minority groups have been killed or driven off their land by those who coveted the land, as was the case in Guatemala in 1979, when 1.5 million poor Indian farmers were forced to abandon their villages and farms and to flee to the mountains of Mexico in order to escape murderous attacks by government soldiers. The blockade of Gaza and the use of drones to kill individuals illegally must also be regarded as gross human rights violations, and there are many recent examples of genocide.

Wars in general, and in particular, the use of nuclear weapons, must be regarded as gross violations of human rights. The most basic human right is the right to life; but this is right routinely violated in wars. Most of the victims of recent wars have been civilians, very often children and women. The use of nuclear weapons must be regarded as a form of genocide, since they kill people indiscriminately,  babies, children, young adults in their prime, and old people, without any regard for guilt or innocence.

Furthermore, recent research shows that a war fought with nuclear weapons would be an ecological disaster. Smoke from burning cities would rise to the stratosphere, where it would spread globally and remain for a period of 10 years, blocking sunlight, destroying the the ozone layer, and blocking the hydrological cycle. An all-out war with thermonuclear weapons would essentially destroy all agriculture for such a long period that most humans would die from starvation. The damage to the biosphere would also be enormous. We may ask: by what right do the nuclear nations threaten the world with a disaster of these proportions? Would not a war fought with nuclear weapons be the greatest imaginable violation of human rights? We should remember that both war in general and the use of nuclear weapons in particular violate democratic principles: The vast majority of ordinary citizens prefer peace to war, and the vast majority also long for a world without nuclear weapons.

We know that war is madness, but it persists. We know that it threatens the future survival of our species, but it persists, entrenched in the attitudes of mainstream newspaper editors, television producers and filmmakers, entrenched in the methods by which politicians finance their campaigns, and entrenched in the financial power of arms manufacturers, entrenched also in the ponderous and costly hardware of war, the fleets of bombers, warships, tanks, nuclear missiles and so on. It is plain that if the almost unbelievable sums now wasted on armaments were used constructively, most of the pressing problems facing the world today could be solved; but today the world spends more that 20 times as much on armaments as it does on development.

Today’s world is one in which roughly 10 million children die every year from diseases related to poverty. Besides this enormous waste of young lives through malnutrition and preventable disease, there is a huge waste of opportunities through inadequate education. The rate of illiteracy in the 25 least developed countries is 80%, and the total number of illiterates in the world is estimated to be 800 million. Meanwhile every 60 seconds the world spends roughly 3 million dollars on armaments. The millions who are starving have a right to food. The millions of illiterates have a right to education. By preferring armaments to development, we deny them these rights.

It is time for civil society to make its voice heard. Politicians are easily influenced by lobbies and by money, but in the last analysis they have to listen to the voice of the people. We have seen this recently in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. We should try to learn from the courage of the people of these countries who have defied guns and tanks to demand their human rights. No single person can achieve the changes that we need, but together we can do it: together we can build the world that we choose.

No one living today asked to be born in a time of crisis, but the global crisis of the 21st century has given each of us an enormous responsibility: We cannot merely leave things up to the politicians, as we have been doing. The future is in our own hands: the hands of the people, the hands of civil society. This is not a time for building private utopias or cultivating our own gardens. Today everyone has two jobs: Of course we have to earn a living, but in addition, all of us have the duty to work actively, to the best of our abilities, to save humanity’s future and the biosphere.


John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century.”


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 December 2012.

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One Response to “Human Rights: A Letter to Santa Claus?”

  1. satoshi says:

    Four points as follows:

    First, about the United States Constitution: Many of rights as described in the UDHR are also described in the US Constitution. Therefore, if the UDHR is a letter to Santa Claus, it means that the substantial part of the US Constitution could also be considered as a letter to Santa Claus. The respect for the UDHR leads to the substantial part of the US Constitution and vice versa. Ask H.E. Jean Kirkpatrick whether he observes the substantial part of the US Constitution. Also ask him whether the United States is the land of “freedom” (= one of the most fundamental human rights) or the US is the land of “oppression and horrors”. In the land of oppression and horrors, human rights are considered as nothing but the contents of a letter to Santa Claus. If terrorism is still a big problem for the United States today, respect and exercise human rights more than before rather than using the lawn mower all the time.

    Second, about the United States and human rights in other countries: If the UDHR is nothing but a letter to Santa Claus, other countries that have poor records of human rights might also claim accordingly. For instance, if the Secretary of the State of the US would refer to the human rights records of Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, or Sudan (i.e. these countries have the worst human rights records according to some human rights organizations), these countries might respond to the US that if the UDHR is a letter to Santa Claus, human rights described in the UDHR are the contents of that letter. If the United States overlooks (or does not care for) international human rights, how is the US entitled to point out other countries’ attitude toward human rights? “Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own?” (Mathew 7.3)

    Third, about a letter FROM Santa Claus: Judging from his statement, let’s assume that H.E. Jean Patrick kindly sent the UDHR to Santa Claus. Accordingly, let’s expect that we will receive a “letter from Santa Claus”. Santa Claus has been delivering Christmas presents to children all over the world for many decades and centuries. So, it is assumed that he knows human rights situations of children all over the world very well. What does he think of human rights situations of children in the world? I would like to know his view. What does he think of the situation like this case, for instance? Visit: What if the photograph in the child on the web page as mentioned was an American, happened to be in Palestine, for instance? What would H.E. Patrick’s response be then, regarding the human rights of this child? Would he, then, write a letter to Santa Claus about this child’s human rights?

    Fourth, Prof. Avery’s view and that of mine: It is my pleasure to discover that Prof. Avery’s view and that of mine are virtually the same. Compare:
    – Prof. Avery’s view: “Today everyone has two jobs: Of course we have to earn a living, but in addition, all of us have the duty to work actively, to the best of our abilities, to save humanity’s future and the biosphere.”
    – My view, expressed in my comment last week: “The article and the child also teach the readers that there are ‘essential (moral) tasks for humanity’, in addition to ‘jobs for livelihood’. Those tasks include those for ‘peace’ and those for ‘love for life’. Those tasks must be done for the whole humanity. And, vice versa, the whole humanity is responsible for those tasks.”

    Thank you for preparing the precious article above, Prof. Avery. Peace be with you all, especially in this season of the year.