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Essay: Declaration of human rights

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  • Published: 14 December 2019*
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“[W]ith no distinction given to their race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”-Article 2 of UDHR of the United Nations, 1948.

Historically, laws came before human rights, but it has been argued that one law which grants us rights, has been there since the beginning of our rational existence. The one we call ‘natural law’, that refers to the inherent rights we posses by being humans. Present from the Sumerians, to the Greeks, to the Christians and the modern man. The presence of something more, that was given to us by nature or God. The universal ability that allows measure our reality, a house of mirrors in theory, and a double edged sword in practice. The current state of this universal standard is split into three eras.

Though the roots that made those advancements possible lay with one of the earliest if not, the earliest incarnation of something akin to natural law, which can be observed in the Greek society. Plato a well known figure of the Classical Era, wrote that the ideal city in one in accordance to nature. He also reasoned that we exist in orderly universe, one which rests fundamentally in the Form of Good. Which he described as the concluding object of knowledge, and went on to say that justice, truth and equality among others, are all derivatives of the Form. Aristotle, a fellow contemporary, quotes Sophocles and Empedocles in the Rhetoric in an attempt to distinguish and possibly establish that there are particular laws and that there is a common law aligned with nature. The Stoics also believed in such a law, they transitioned it from natural justice to an eternal law by which rational beings live by the purposeful order of the universe. This conclusion is said to have been reached by the rationale revolving around Pantheism, that God is all in all is God. The divine (natural law) given to us by God, would let us live in harmony with the surrounding universe.

In the Roman Empire, the most notable figure talking about natural law would be Marcus Tullius Cicero. Who explicitly states in De Re Publica that justice and law comes from the measure given to man by nature and no one can absolve it (The Epistle to The Romans in the New Testament borrows from this). In De Legibus he says it functions to unite humanity, to oblige us to contribute for the greater good of society. Which would be the preservation of the state, security of the citizens and happiness. To Cicero laws must be inherent to that idea, as laws are in principle what is just and true. Making any unjust law (of not reforming vice or inciting virtue), a deviation and a law just by appearances (These thoughts on the subject made it all the way to revolutions of the 18th century).

In the 12th century Renaissance was one of many great strides in social matters. With the Magna Carta coming into play in 1215, after several Barons faced King John, ultimately limiting the ‘divine right’ of kings in 63 clauses, including the right to a fair trial, habeas corpus, representation due to taxation and no one being above the law, not even the King. This makes the Magna Carta, the first English bill of right (Which influenced the development of common law and many constitutional documents, such as the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights). During this same era, Thomas Aquinas came to be, both controversial and famous for synthesizing a mix of Aristotelian reasoning and Christianity, making it a fundamental philosophy. Expanding both social ethic and natural law, which fully matured during the Age of Enlightenment, centuries later (Like the School of Salamanca which came to the conclusion that all humans have the right to liberty and life. Which faced fierce opposition from the colonial powers).

First generation: Socio-Political

The first generation rights deal with values that pertain liberty and participation in political life. Led by a strong focus on individualism and protection of the individual from the state. These rights draw from those articulated in the United States Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in the 18th century. Later on these civil-political rights became legitimized and made international law by Articles 3 to 21 of the UDHR of the United Nations.

Famous exponents in that era were the likes of, Sir Matthew Hale who viewed that natural law was the antecedent to civil government, and stated that human law cannot refuse what the law of nature in-joins or what it prohibits. Thomas Hobbes, famous for his treatises Leviathan and De Cive, tells us that natural law is a general rule found out by reason, one which forbids man to do that which is destructive to his life or takes away the means of preserving said life. In Leviathan he lists nineteen laws, the first two being in chapter fourteenth (natural laws and contracts) and the rest in chapter fifteenth (other laws of nature). Hobbes’s philosophy attacks the founding principles of the earlier natural legal traditions, doing away with the traditional association of virtue and happiness, removing the notion of law existing for the common good and declaring man as primitive (brutish) unlike the theory of Aristotelian perfection. This drew criticism and attention due to his harsh remarks on the nature of mankind. In particular his remarks that man has a right to anything, that nothing is unjust and that he only chooses his social life to escape that miserable state. In Hobbes’ works we can see his reasoning is that of an inverted ‘Golden Rule’ which would be “Do not do that to another, which thou wouldst not have done to thy selfe”. Onto the third famous Englishman, is John Locke, created many theories and works, the most notable of which is the creation of the Two Treatises of Government. Locke had an alternate view of Hobbes’ rationale (absolute v. limited government), he argued that if a ruler went against natural law and failed to protect the essential (life, liberty, and property) citizens could justifiably overthrow the existing state and create a new one.

Then came The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 sets up a number of fundamental rights and freedoms, while the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen defines a set of individual and collective rights of the people (Universal). Later on Two major revolutions occurred during the 18th century, one in the United States (1776) and one in France (1789). These revolutions were truly signaled by two documents which evolved human rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 sets up a number of fundamental rights and freedoms, while the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen defines a set of individual and collective rights of the people (Universal). Both documents filled with liberal Natural law, which became a component in the United States Declaration of Independence (which heavily borrowed from VDR) and later on also incorporated into the United States Constitution, as its foundation is common law whose foundation is classical natural law. Thomas Jefferson, asserted such attitude by discussing the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence (seemingly influenced by Locke in the both unalienable rights and consent of the governed) and stating “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Second generation: Socio-Economics

The Second generation rights guarantee equal conditions and treatment. A responsibility with more than just rights, the government must respect and fulfill them. Socio-economic rights began to gain traction during the World Wars, and officially recognized by governments after World War II. Such rights, are embodied in Articles 22 to 27 of the UDHR of the United Nations.

These were the times were many movements started to gain more strength. Such as labor unions, women’s rights movements, workers rights (including child labor), decolonization and international human laws. Two pre-war organizations worthy of mention that pushed such agendas, were the Internationale Committee of the Red Cross and the first Geneva convention. After the first war the League of Nations, formed by the Treaty of Versailles, took upon the responsibility to create security, stronger diplomacy and improving global welfare. The League also had a mandate to promote many of the values and rights that would later be gathered in the UDHM (in example dignity). After the second World War, the United Nations came to be (at the time having fifty-three members), an organization which hoped to succeed in what its predecessor could not, plus the later added missions of peace, societal development and aid. While the opinions and results are mixed, their Universal Declaration of Human Rights changed the world forever.

For human rights activists, UDHR is sacred, 30 articles that outline the political, economic, social rights that we are all entitled to, regardless of where and who we are,
as we are all human. Making universality of human rights beyond question (though many still question), we all are free and equal after that point. It was the light at the end of a tunnel, a step forward in a world cripple by war, an attempt to ensure such events are never repeated on the face of the Earth, the acknowledgement by all states of the humanity of the people.

Third generation: Collective-development

In the newest generation of rights, the focus is broad and humanitarian. Things such as animal rights, environmental regulations, Indigenous people’s rights and more take the spotlight. While another focus is soft laws that work with communication rights, sustainability and economic and social development.

The Question

Now comes the question… How can one single document represent or claim to represent every person in the world, when our way of living are so different?

For many, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a biased document which fails (arguable) to account for the different cultural norms which exist in the world. To make matters worse, some see it as an attempt to impose Western values on the rest of the world. This is irrational, since there were representatives from South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, these did not fit the notion of “Western”, nor do two-thirds of the endorsing votes. And now 193 countries have joined the United Nations, and abide by what Eleanor Roosevelt called the International Magna Carta. But what about the freedom of religion, was it really a Western imposition? The clause was supported by a number of Muslim representatives (whom I would expect the most resistance) from Pakistan to India. The most notable Muslim country that opposed was Saudi Arabia, who objected, and even abstained from voting on the Declaration.

We must remember that one cannot talk about human rights, without the history discrimination, be it racial, sexual or religious. Nor can we preach about democracy without acknowledging the shadow of totalitarianism. Our ancestors suffered through the oppression by their co-habitants and the state, the UDHR is what was born from the uphill fight of everyone involved (not that the Declaration came naturally). The right to live, the right to liberty and the right to security have echoed throughout history from every corner of the world and their call has been answered, after countless of theories, rallies, and marches as to why we are all equal.

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