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Human Rights

The Myth of Universal Human Rights — Part 3

Universal Human Rights and the Third Estate

Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”
– John Stuart Mill


Taking the Universe out of Universal Human Rights

The concern in this essay is with the efficacy of inherent human rights; those pesky moral imperatives, whether codified into law or not, that apply to all people everywhere; global in reach and universal in application. Mostly, these rights are meant to cover the commoners, or what the French have called the “Third Estate.” (The Clergy was the First Estate and the Nobility comprised the Second Estate.) However, some wiseass political philosophers have suggested that these days the Third Estate includes, as a practical matter, everybody.

On June 25, 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights addressed this issue with its “Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,” which declares in Article I, paragraph 5:

“All Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all Human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Such language begs many questions. Are human rights, in fact, universal? For example, are they truly “indivisible and interdependent and interrelated” between China, and Chile, and Chad, and Croatia, and Cuba, and Canada? Do the resolves laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  and the International Bill of Human Rights truly represent the collective moral conscience of the entire world, or is there a Western civilization bias concerning the morality of Human rights? Should political systems, economic conditions, local culture and social customs really be dismissed as irrelevant to universal human rights? Does everyone agree on what is meant by the concepts of freedom, equality, liberty, justice, and dignity? How should individual rights be reconciled with group rights? How are the conflicts between the sovereign rights of nations and the human rights of their citizens to be resolved? And, what about the impact of pluralism, multiculturalism, and globalization?

Therefore, there are, it seems to me, legitimate concerns about the applicability and even the appropriateness of an International Bill of Human Rights, and the protection of so-called human rights in general. After all, most of the pertinent documents were drafted and approved by unelected representatives appointed by UN member nations. Furthermore, many instruments were never signed but were approved only by a voice vote, while others were signed but not ratified by member states.

In light of the foregoing issues, consider the “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam” (CDHRI), which is the Muslim world’s position on this issue. The CDHRI was adopted on August 5, 1990 by 45 foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. It has been criticized for failing to guarantee unqualified equal rights, or provide for women’s rights, or freedom of (or from) religion. The CDHRI does not recognize international law, but is based instead on Islamic Sharia law. Assuming this document speaks for the entire Islamic world, upwards of 1.8 billion people have been summarily removed from the protection, such as it is, of international law on human rights.

The “African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights” was adopted unanimously in 1981 by the 53 member states of the Africa Union. Notwithstanding the good intentions of this Charter, many counties in Africa are infamous for their violations of human rights. They include Nigeria, Kenya, Mali, Sudan, South Africa, Rwanda and Uganda. Of the estimated one billion people who live in Africa, about 405 million are Muslim, which were already counted above, that leaves 600 million or so living in African countries with questionable protection of their human rights

Then there is the so-called “Bangkok Declaration on Human Rights,” adopted in 1993, which gives the Asian spin on human rights. It too has been criticized because it opposes those universal human rights which are not in accord with “Asian values.” (There is some debate about that opposition however.) So, if this is about Eastern civilization making a stand to defend its own cultural traditions and political philosophy, and if we just count China, Russia, and India, then we can remove another two and one-half billion people from at least some protection under the International Bill of Human Rights

In Europe, a number of instruments providing for individual freedoms and human rights have been adopted. These include the “European Convention on Human Rights” (ECHR), the “Council of Europe’s Social Charter,” the “Community Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers,” and the “Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.” But some EU members have opted out of a number of provisions in those documents. For example, in the ECHR, adopted in 1950, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom have signed but never ratified the protocols involving civil imprisonment, free movement, and expulsion. Andorra, Greece and Switzerland have neither signed nor ratified that section. For the protocols dealing with the right to appeal in criminal matters, compensation for the victims of miscarriages of justice, double jeopardy in criminal cases, and equality between spouses, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey have never ratified it and Andorra and the United Kingdom have neither signed nor ratified that protocol. The estimated population of the European Union is 500 million.

In Latin America, human rights policy resides in the Organization of American States (OAS.) The Charter of the Organization of American States focuses on several areas promoting human rights: democracy, economic rights, the right to education, and equality. The Charter also establishes two main institutions designed specifically for human rights protection: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. However, like all international courts, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is limited in what it can do to remedy violations. No criminal prosecutions are pursued and only judgements and fines against the offending states are issued, along with what was no doubt a severe tongue lashing.

In 1948, while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was still being considered at the U.N., members of the OAS approved the “American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man” (ADRDM.) This document enumerates many of the rights listed in the UDHR, and adds ten “duties” that citizens and member states should carry out to protect and maintain their rights. Of course, we are aware of the numerous human rights violations that have occurred in Latin America over the past sixty years – Cuba, Haiti, Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Panama, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Apparently, these counties didn’t get the memo about the ADRDM.

The United States, although a proponent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the beginning, has increasingly refused to support the prosecution of human rights violations, especially in this early part of the 21st century. As noted in Part 2 of this series, the U.S. does not accept jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. In addition, the U.S. has failed to ratify certain instruments in the International Bill of Human Rights, including those covering the Rights of the Child, Discrimination against Women, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the [Inter-] American Convention on Human Rights.

The United States has also yet to sign treaties that ban land-mines, and the use of child soldiers, and has refused to acknowledge the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (read torture) and the prohibition against executing persons under the age of 18. The only UN members that have not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child are Somalia and the United States. In this country, human rights are far from universal. We have become the nation of “do as we say, not as we do:”

Hubris and hypocrisy

Perhaps still intoxicated from the power of affirming human rights for all mankind, and possibly to cure a glaring omission, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) was finally adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and, of course, the United States voted against it.

In 1994, the UN launched the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004) to increase its commitment to promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous Peoples worldwide. As part of the “Decade,” several UN agencies began working with indigenous Peoples to design and implement projects on health, education, housing, employment, industrial development, and the environment that promote their protection and their traditional customs, values and practices.

The DRIP contains forty-six articles, which is sixteen more than the UDHR. However, Article 1, ties it into the other human rights instruments of the UN:

Indigenous Peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.”

Thus, primitive cultures are accorded special recognition here as “peoples,” meaning they have communal rights and well as individual rights. In effect, they were taken out of the human rights orphanage and adopted by the UN. This event no doubt resulted in a kumbaya moment for the Akuntsu tribe living in the Amazon forest and the !Kung villagers in the Serengeti region of Africa and the Punan people in the mountains of Borneo. As of 2007, the U.N. estimated that there were more than 370 million indigenous people living in some 90 countries worldwide.

So, in a world of some 6.9 billion people, the governments of countries with a combined population of about 6.6 billion, roughly 97% of the planet’s human population, have opted out of or failed to sign or ratify at least some provisions of the various treaties, covenants and protocols that make up the International Bill of Human Rights. And I’m uncertain about human rights protection for the remaining 3% of the planet’s population.

It’s impossible to know whether the multitude of human rights instruments have had any effect over the last sixty years. Alleged violations seem to have continued unabated. In the end, maybe Thomas Hobbes got it right. In 1651, Hobbes published his book with the excellent title, “Leviathan, or The Matter, Form and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civil,” in which the idea of a “social contract” is first put forth. Hobbes posits in Leviathan that:

Man in the state of nature seeks nothing but his own selfish pleasure, but such individualism naturally leads to a war in which every man’s hand is against his neighbor. In pure self-interest and for self-preservation men entered into a compact [social contract] by which they agreed to surrender part of their natural freedom to an absolute ruler in order to preserve the rest. The State determines what is just and unjust, right and wrong; and the strong-arm of the law provides the ultimate sanction for right conduct.”


Continued in Part 4 – Rights, Respect, and Responsibility



One thought on “The Myth of Universal Human Rights — Part 3

  1. Jim Wheeler – Joplin, Missouri – U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.

    On reading part 3, an analogy occurred to me. It is now possible with genetic engineering to “grow” human tissue in vitro and by providing an artificial scaffold, make a human part such as a trachea or nose. The scaffold is essential to the product. Similarly, the various drafts of human rights may be relatively ineffective now, but they do provide a scaffold similar to what a universal bill must eventually look like. “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Eh?

    Culture does change with time, albeit unpredictably. For example, I would never have thought 50 years ago that gay marriage would be acceptable to the majority of Americans, nor that we would elect a black president in my lifetime. In short, then, I must conclude that efforts to define universal rights are worthy, even if ineffective.

    The principal question pends: Which will prevail, man’s animal nature or his ability to socially-engineer himself?

    P.S. Liked your op-ed in the Globe this morning, Herb. Automation is indeed the principal jobs problem and our Dear Orange Leader’s efforts to expel workers at the bottom of the pyramid will only accelerate the replacement of people by robots. I can only think of a few jobs that are not endangered. Entertainers, professional athletes, dare-devils, nurses, counselors, psychiatrists, interior decorators, artists, salespeople. I would include bloggers and columnists, but as we all know, those don’t pay. As might be said in a tweet: SAD.

    Posted by Jim Wheeler | February 26, 2017, 10:17 AM

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