What Are Human Rights?
STATESMEN AT LAKE SUCCESS HAVE PONDERED THAT QUESTION AND NOW OFFER THEIR ANSWER
THE first step in one of the most important tasks the United Nations has undertaken has been completed. It is the drafting of a Declaration on Human Rights. Its Preamble and 28 Articles may eventuate into mankind's greatest human document, for it seeks to expand as well as to make secure the rights of man.
This urge in mankind is neither new nor novel. The Babylonians, nearly 4,000 years ago, had their Code of Hammurabi, which established freedom within that law. Later the Greeks and the Romans contributed patterns for human conduct exemplified in the Justinian Code. Then after a few centuries, in A.D. 1215, England promulgated new liberties in the Magna Carta and toward the end of the 17th Century expanded them in the Bill of Rights. France contributed the Napoleonic Code to the world and the "unalienable rights" of man, eloquently charted in the Declaration of Independence of the United States, gave new hope to people everywhere.
It is only since the advent of the 20th Century, however, that the peoples of the world really began to act and think collectively, perhaps as a result of cataclysmic wars, and to look beyond national or regional frontiers and take stock of their collective well being. The League of Nations Covenant marked a beginning, followed by the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations Charter, which fathered the present Commission on Human Rights.
Negotiations in the United Nations, by which international agreements are forged, are at best complicated processes. Yet it would seem to be not too difficult to reach agreement upon matters of non-political or moral nature, such as human rights. But it took 18 months of debate and nearly 100 meetings to bring forth this draft.
It probably covers a wider range of human activity than any other similar document in history. Beginning Article 1 with the declaration that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights..." it proceeds with several Articles generally resembling the guaranties contained in the United States Constitution. Among them are the right to life and liberty, freedom from arbitrary arrest and involuntary servitude, the right to own property, the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
Other Articles deal with economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to work and protection from unemployment; the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and provisions against sickness, disability, and old age; the right to an education, to rest, and to leisure; and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community.
The meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, ably presided over by Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, was devoted for the most part to the detailed considerations of human rights drawn from national constitutions, from national institutes, and from texts furnished by certain delegations. The final draft that emerged will be submitted to the Economic and Social Council, then to the United Nations General Assembly, meeting at Paris in September, before it can become a part of the final Covenant on Human Rights, or specific law, which nations may incorporate in their own legislation.
This intricate, lengthy process of consideration and reconsideration, of submission and resubmission by one Principal Organ of the United Nations to another is inviolable because the principle of the sovereign equality of States, large and small, is enshrined in the Charter of San Francisco. Moreover, the 58 sovereign States in the United Nations have a bewildering variety of cultures, histories, racial origins, religions, systems of government, and legal practices.
It was in such a setting that the Commission on Human Rights went to work on its task as outlined in the Preamble of the U. N. Charter. This, it will be recalled, declared that "We the peoples of the United Nations" are determined, first, "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and, secondly, "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small." Only the question of war precedes the mandate to declare human rights.
Supplying content and meaning for the phrase "the dignity and worth of the human person" quite naturally brought into relief the differences in ideologies of the nations represented. For this is an age of ideologies, of passionate fundamental beliefs about the nature of things, and especially the nature of man and of society. It is no exaggeration to say that there is no fundamental question shaking the world to its depths today which was not somehow, directly or indirectly, reflected in the deliberations and decisions of the Commission on Human Rights. Agreement had to be reached on four basic issues concerning the nature of man.
The first was whether man is simply an animal, so that his rights are just those of an animal. All those who stress the elemental economic rights and needs of man are for the most part impressed by his sheer animal existence. This is materialism, whatever else it may be called. Materialism is a popular philosophy of our times, making it difficult to champion the cause of the spirit and mind of man; and to impress on the international community the point that even after man is fully secure in his so-called "economic rights" he may still be not-man. But unless man's proper nature, unless his mind and spirit are brought out, set apart, protected, and promoted, the struggle for human rights is a sham and a mockery.
The second question is to determine the place of the individual human person in modern society. This is the great problem of personal freedom. How is my personal freedom limited by society? May I freely examine any issue, may I criticize, may I express my criticism, may I rebel and oppose and say No! to my group or government or nation? Or am I wholly determined by my social relations so that I have no right to rebel, no right to ask questions, no right to look around and seek, no right to lift my head above the crowd and reach forth to the light and truth?
In this age of spreading socialism it is difficult to champion the cause of freedom; it is difficult to shout from the housetops that man cannot be absorbed by society, that he is by nature free to think, free to choose, free to rebel against his own society, or indeed against the whole world, if it is in the wrong. But unless we succeed in preserving and promoting man's inalienable freedom, we shall have traded away his dignity, and we shall have destroyed his worth.
The third fundamental question raised in the relationship between man and the State, between the individual and law. This is the great problem of statism. The question here is not whether man ought to obey the law, or whether he ought to be subject to his State. The question rather is this: Which is more ultimate, which is prior to the other, which is for the sake of the other--the individual human person or the State?
And as regards the law, the question is whether it is arbitrary, accidental, imposed on me by force, coming from the outside, merely pragmatic, ungrounded, and blind; or whether it is grounded in the nature of things and above all in my own rational nature, so that it is the best external guaranty for the development of my freedom.
In this age of advancing governmental control, of national consciousness and sovereignty, it is difficult to convince man that he is not meant to be the slave of his Government; it is difficult to establish in his mind the right scale of values whereby he can see clearly that the State exists ultimately for his sake and in his service and not conversely. But unless we reject the total subordination of man to the State; unless, that is, we succeed not only in limiting the claims of the State on man, but also in ensuring the State's recognition of his claims on it, the battle for the fundamental rights and freedoms will have been virtually lost.
The fourth ultimate issue is the question of man's ultimate loyalties. Does man have by nature other loyalties than his loyalty to the State?
Is his loyalty to the State all-embracing, absolute, unconditional, intolerant of every other loyalty and attachment? Or is he allowed to develop loyalties at least side by side with his loyalty to the State? Is it in harmony with his natural rights as a man to allow the State to determine for him all his beliefs and ideas and even hopes, all the material basis of his existence, all the patterns of his life?
What about the family, the church, the intimate circle of friends, the independent pursuit of science and truth, the sustaining folk songs and folkways which are utterly independent in their origin of any Government and any State? What about this whole plenum of intermediate institutions spanning the entire chasm between the individual and the State?
We speak of fundamental freedoms and of human rights; but, actually, where and when are we really free and human? Is it in the street, is it in our direct relations to our State? Is it not rather the case that we enjoy our deepest and truest freedom and humanity in our family, in the church, in our intimate circle of friends, when we are immersed in the joyful ways of life of our own people, when we seek, find, see, and acknowledge the truth?
These intermediate institutions between the State and the individual are, I am convinced, the real sources of our freedom and our rights. The tragedy of the modern world is that these real grounds of freedom are in danger of decay. The family is subject to terrible strains, the church is on the defensive, modern man has no friends, truth has become a matter of pragmatic convenience. But unless the proposed Bill of Rights can create conditions which will allow man to develop ultimate loyalties with respect to these intermediate sources of freedom, over and above his loyalty to the State, we shall have legislated not for man's freedom but for his virtual enslavement.
Thus, to recapitulate, the Commission faced and wrestled with these four basic issues: (1) the nature of man; (2) the place of the individual in society; (3) the relation of man and State; (4) man's ultimate loyalties. It is, I believe, noteworthy as grounds for great hope that by majority vote we should have been able to agree on conclusions now stated in the draft Declaration on Human Rights. It is a document which should be read with profound thought by all who envisage the reign of a just peace on this earth.
The need is above everything else for courageous and sustained moral leadership. It is for some one nation so to put its own house in order and so to be fired by a genuine sense of mission as to have its words on fundamental human rights ring with authority.
There is everything in the background and fundamental outlook of certain nations to entitle them to take a bold lead concerning the ultimate emancipation of man; and yet such a lead has not always been forthcoming. Fatigued by the stupendous exertions of the war; preoccupied with self-interest and sheer politics; distracted by the sheer multiplicity and pressure of events in this rapidly shrinking world; undermined by friction and disorder from within; blunted by the prevalent international fear and suspicion: some nations royally destined in themselves to sound the clarion call, present yet an unconvincing and faltering style.
Nor do the ordinary processes of the emergence of responsible leadership in the democratic world seem to be tossing up at present leaders of the requisite moral stature. By the time a man reaches the top he has usually expended his soul in compromise and appeasement. The result of all this is divided and enfeebled counsel.
The Commission has endeavored to fulfill the expectations of the Charter. But something has happened in the international situation which has somehow weakened the original hold of the Charter on the member nations. One must face this tragic fact in all honesty. The distressing impression is often gained that really only lip service is paid the cause of human rights. It is as though the provisions of the Charter on this question were not meant seriously. Despite the solemn enshrinement of human rights as one of the fundamental reasons for the existence of the United Nations itself, despite the fact that the member nations, by signing the Charter, are legally bound to all its provisions including the promotion and observance of human rights and consequently and necessarily their precise definition, I have observed a certain degree of inordinate caution, nay perhaps even of cynicism, with regard to the carrying out of the mandate. It is as though the real will to achieve and ensure human rights were lacking.
We need endless rational debate and discussion; we need the bracing touch of moral leadership; but without the real political will to discover and promulgate and enforce these rights, debate and leadership will avail nothing. The will is the agency of realization. A man may know all the truth and may know it even with passion, but unless he also wills it, it is not likely to pass into actuality.
But if peoples are patient with one another in full debate until agreement is reached, or at least until the issues have become perfectly clear; if nations are granted the boon of a vigorous, understanding, and moral leadership; if the genuine will to achieve human rights is restored and enhanced; if the nations which signed the Charter and are therefore legally and morally bound by it are willing not to retreat from but to advance beyond its terms; if in this advance necessary safeguards are introduced against the excesses of materialism, nationalism, and statism in favor of the real freedom and dignity of man; and if the intermediate soil of freedom is watered with care and protection and love: if we are wise enough, and courageous enough, and true enough, and free enough to do all this, then, I am confident, the dawn of a new day will come upon us.
"What Are Human Rights" was originally published in August 1948 by The Rotarian.