On the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 17 Dec 2018
10 Dec 2018 – Responses to questions relating to the Universal Declaration of Human Right addressed to me by the journalist Rodrigo Craveiro on behalf of the Brazilian newspaper, Correio Braziliense. I am posting slightly modified responses today, December 10, the 70thanniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly. This Declaration was a notable step in the direction of asserting that persons by virtue of their humanness are entitled to protection in the exercise of a broad spectrum of rights, and hence, that sovereignty is subject to certain constraining limitations. Much progress has been made since 1948, although we live in a period of mounting pressure on human rights deriving from a surge of right-wing populism combined with the effects of an insufficiently regulated capitalism. We also live at a time of expanding ecological consciousness, which includes a more serious concern about animal rights. Perhaps, the time has come to propose and draft a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Animals.
1– How do you see the meaning and the importance of Universal Declaration of Human Rights? What are the main parts of the Declaration in your point of view?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a historic document as it represented the first time that an authoritative and comprehensive conception of international human rights was formulated and agreed upon by the leading governments of the world. It was also significant that rights were formulated as inhering in being ‘human’ rather than as a matter that was to be determined in accord with national or civilizational norms. Even so this historic text was set forth in a declaratory form that meant that it was not obligatory, and the implementation of human rights standards remained essentially voluntary. While affirming human rights, governments were not ready to make legal commitments that could weaken their sovereign rights to have the final say in state/society relations.
However, the UDHR had more political traction than anticipated in 1948. Opposition groups in East Europe found it useful as a way to assert the legitimacy of posing demands to their governments. NGOs formed in the West, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, did their best to persuade governments throughout the world to live up to human rights standards partly by relying on the authority of the USHR. Furthermore, the UN anti-apartheid campaign was based on a human rights rationale, and proved eventually effective in inducing the South African leadership to change course and dismantle their racist regime. These developments established the political relevance of human rights as something more than a pious declaration of good intentions.
Furthermore, the Western democracies found the UDHR a useful propaganda instrument in their ideological rivalry with the Soviet bloc countries. This gave human rights a prominent role in the foreign policy of the Western democracies. At the same time it weakened the authority of human rights to the extent that it became an attack weapon rather than a source of self-criticism and self-correction.
The UDHR is partly notable for its inclusion of economic, social, and cultural rights alongside civil and political rights. Article 25 contains a revolutionary norm to the effect that everyone is entitled to a standard of living that meets basic material needs. Article 28 even promisesas a human right, an international order capable of providing satisfaction of the various distinct human rights as coherently set forth in the UDHR.
It is important to appreciate that governments did set about the task of translating the UDHR into a treaty form through negotiations that lasted almost two decades, and featured the split between the capitalist countries of the West and the socialist countries of the East. The resulting compromise was a rather awkward split of the unity of rights as set forth in the UDHR into two treaty instrument reflecting this Cold War ideological division: Covenant of Civil and Political Rights reflective of the values of liberal individualist societies and the Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressive of the collective identities fostered by socialism.
It is notable that in the UN Conference on Human Rights and Development held in Vienna in 1975 the indivisibilityof human rights was reaffirmed, reflecting a revival of the unified approach of the UDHR and a rejection of the fracturing of the two categories of human rights into parallel covenants. In this respect, although the UNDH was only a declaration it may be more expressive of the true nature of human rights than are the 1966 treaty instrument, the Covenants being a product of the temporary Cold War atmosphere, but also, of the incompatibility of the protection of economic and social rights with the logic and operation of the neoliberal economic order that emerged on a global scale after the Cold War.
2– Do you believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being fully accomplished by all nations which signed it? Is it actually a very important guideline for all nations?
I think it is helpful here to distinguish between governments and societies. Social forces in society found the UDHR incredibly helpful in assessing whether their own government was living up to proper standards in state/society relations as measured by law and morality. It has also proved to be a useful yardstick within the UN System to determine whether states are in compliance with fundamental human rights.
In the present period when many important countries are governed by elected autocrats, there has been a notable decline in the observance of the standards embodied in the UDHR. There is no doubt that the status of human rights of a political character is dependent upon the quality of democratic governance. If democracy declines, so does the observance of human rights, and vice versa. We are presently living through a period of decline, especially with respect to civil and political rights, less so in relation to economic and social rights, but not much less so as capitalism is in a predatory stage due to the absence of normative and ideological challenges since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the adoption of a market approach to political economy by China.
3– What are the main violations of Universal Declaration of Human Rights you could point as most serious ones? Why?
It is not possible to give a complete answer as different countries and civilizations are inclined to violate different categories of human rights. It is possible to offer some generalizations, but these need to be adjusted to various national conditions.
Countries committed to market driven forms of economic practice tend to be weak when it comes to the observance of economic and social rights. For instance, some of the richest countries in the global North have huge pockets of extreme poverty. Neoliberal globalization has accentuated various forms of inequality that have led to widespread violations of economic and social rights.
Islamic countries do not adhere to those aspects of human rights that mandate equal treatment of women in all sphere of public and family life. Such discrimination may be also present in the treatment of sexual identities that deviate from the mainstream dualist norm such as are associated with the identities of persons of gay, lesbian, and trans persuasion.
Countries governed in an autocratic manner tend to encroach upon freedom of expression and suppress journalistic and media dissent, as well as interfere with dissenting views in universities, labor unions, political parties. There are currently campaigns in various Western countries to treat criticism of Israel as a form of hate speech that has been labeled as ‘the New Anti-Semitism’ causing punitive reactions to opinions that should be protected by canons of freedom of expression in a manner consistent with the guidelines of the UDHR, as well as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
4– Do you think the Declaration is quite obsolete due to the fact it didn´t predict digital privacy challenges, artificial intelligence and climate changing? In spite of that, is the text still a very important tool?
I do not think the Declaration is obsolete or even anachronistic, although it needs to be updated in various ways to take account of the distinct human rights challenges posed by the realities of the digital age. My responses to earlier questions suggest the important relevance of the UDHR to contemporary non-digital conditions of life throughout the world.
I would suggest the preparation of a new consensus international legal instrument with the title Declaration of Human Rights Pertaining to the Challenges of the Digital Age. This Declaration could address issues of privacy, surveillance, robotics, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering. It might prove difficult, if not impossible, to find sufficient common ground among leading governments and other stakeholders to reach a consensus. Even so, the fact that a negotiating process leads to a declaration rather than an enforceable treaty might facilitate reaching a framework agreement on fundamental principles, which later could be formalized in an obligatory form and given greater specificity.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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