United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – Analysing Its Benefits and Shortcomings

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 27 Feb 2017

Dr Ravi P Bhatia - TRANSCEND Media Service

A broad architecture of peace, justice and harmony was planned after the brutalities and killings of WWII. Millions of people had been killed and many nations destroyed. The broad objective of the architecture was to ensure that some basic human rights of people all over the world are identified and implemented by their governments for their wellbeing and happiness.

The project was taken up under the aegis of the United Nations to draw a detailed plan to preserve and promote people’s human rights, restore peace, rebuild the warring nations that had been destroyed in the war and ensure and that such a horrendous war does not recur.

A core committee of a few western nations was set up by the UN General Assembly under the chair of Eleanor Roosevelt to draw the contours of this Charter of Human Rights to usher in peace, tranquility and well being. The Committee met a few times and finally a Declaration was agreed to, encompassing the objectives of the Charter to restore peace and harmony and promote human rights. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was finally approved without any dissensions on 10 December 1948. The world celebrates the Human Rights Day on 10 December in commemoration of this Declaration of Human Rights.

The UN declaration is based on the strong belief of several scholars and politicians that any person or human being anywhere in the world has some basic, inalienable rights that do not depend upon his sex, race, religion, language and the country to which he belongs. On the basis of this precept, a human being has a basic and fundamental right to adequate food, shelter, health etc. These rights are also called natural rights since no human being can survive without these basic needs. In addition certain other rights have been added – rights such as liberty, peace, education and freedom to profess any religion or faith.

The latter are called civil and political rights. But a person also needs to get meaningful employment so that he can fulfill his basic needs and that of his family. He also needs a healthy social structure or society so that he and his family can live in peace and harmony. These rights are called social and economic rights.

The UN Declaration  has several features which can be divided into five core areas:

1.     Human Dignity

2.     Non Discrimination

3.     Civil and Political Rights

4.     Social and Economic Rights

5.     Solidarity Rights

The first area of human dignity stresses that all human beings are born free and are equal in dignity and have some basic rights.

The point 2 above signifies that there should be no discrimination of humans on the basis of their religious beliefs, race, language, sex, place of birth etc.

The third area suggests that all humans enjoy the rights which signify freedom, peace, freedom of conscience and the religion they may follow, freedom of opinion and expression.

These are also called first generation rights and were adopted in some form or the other in the US Bill of Rights that declared that “all men are by nature equally free and have certain inherent rights …” This idea found expression in the US Declaration of Independence in 1776. These ideas are also found in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen that stresses that “men are born free and equal in rights.” The French revolution that started in 1789 and continued till 1799 came up with the declaration Liberté, égalité, fraternité; it also abolished the monarchy in France and established a republic. The slogan has had profound impact on the histories of several European countries including Russia.

Many scholars credit the US Bill of Rights as well as the French revolution to Magna Carta formulated in England in early thirteenth century.

The fourth core area listed above signifies that the governments should provide some basic rights that are essential for human life and dignity; these include food, shelter, education, health care and the ability to get meaningful employment. There are also some special provisions for mothers and children and elderly people. These conditions have also been stressed by Marxist writers and the constitutions of communist countries although they are present in all constitutions including the liberal democratic nations.

The Solidarity Rights include the rights of people to have clean environment, peaceful conditions and absence of wars or violence, suitable development for all communities of people including the tribal populations or farmers etc.

It was expected that the UN Declaration will usher in a climate of peace, justice, equality and harmony in the world. However the situation on the ground in most nations is unfortunately quite different from the above objectives. One can see disparities, deprivation and discrimination in many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even USA has large economic and social disparities as highlighted by their Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz who wrote that ‘American inequality didn’t just happen, it was created.’

What are the principal factors behind inequality, discrimination and absence of harmony and goodwill in society? It is difficult to analyse these in this short essay but some scholars such as Andrew Heard (Canada), Derren J. O’Byrne, G Haragopal (University of Hyderabad) and  the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen are of the view that the UN Declaration is European and US centric. They argue that the human rights theories have been shaped by the liberalism — economic and social that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries and they only reflect western values. The Declaration does not understand the cultures, politics and religions of non-western countries.

Many Muslim countries and Communist nations find fault with the import of some of the 30 articles of the Declaration. The legacy of Karl Marx also is against the listing of some of the basic economic rights. According to him, freedom and rights have relevance to the propertied classes as they protect and legitimize their privileges and properties but these lead to unfreedom of the poor and the proletariat who are forced to sell their labor for the productive process of factories without having any say in the nature of production or in the fruits of their labor. Marx believed in the emancipation of all people and creation of conditions of freedom where every individual can develop in a holistic manner.

In India also the conditions are quite different for some human rights to succeed. The Indian society is broken up into higher and lower castes with unequal social and economic rights.There is thus caste discrimination and destitution as pointed out by Dr B R Ambedkar (Father of the Indian constitution) as well as by Gandhi. In addition tribal people in India and in many parts of the world are discriminated and victimised and forced to evacuate their homes where they have been living for ages due to the current needs of development for the large majority of people. Many countries such as in South Sudan are facing famine like conditions due to failure of agriculture and distorted policies of their governments.

These and several other issues cannot be addressed by the present Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite these problems, the UDHR has had some positive impact also. There has been no world war after WW II although several smaller wars and border tensions continue in many parts of the world including in India and Pakistan. Social and economic inequalities do exist, but there is also a strong feeling in many countries that these must be reduced. It is also felt that development to improve the conditions of the poor, marginalised sections of people including the tribal populations must take place without destroying our physical environment. The physical environment has become degraded and polluted leading to global warming and climate change. On a happier note, many activists and NGOs are working in harmony with their governments to reduce evils such as the occurrence of bonded labour, violence against women and the weaker sections and other such issues that plague modern society.

These and similar efforts must be applauded and encouraged.

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Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University.  ravipbhatia@gmail.com

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Feb 2017.

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