Monday, December 08, 2008

Sixtieth Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights

Every Human Has Rights

This is indeed a singularly important declaration and an equally singularly important anniversary.  It is realistic, if a sad commentary on the human condition, to say that we have learned all we know about human rights in consequence of their denial and often horrific abuse.  After all it took the Nazi Holocaust to convince us the we had to enshrine our human rights in a special universal declaration.  In other words some six million Jews and another five or so million sundry others comprising Roma gypsies, Soviet civilians, Soviet POWs, ethnic Poles, the disabled, the insane, gay men and a wide collection of political and religious opponents and the intelligentsia and well as the unlettered masses from all races.

Such is the dreadful and tortuously sad history of humanity and of the denial of human rights.  However, some few beacons of light have shone out on the shadowy and rough seas of their denial.  I just have to mention the great American Declaration of Independence of 1776 for the following wonderful statements to come to our minds.  They seem to be indelibly stamped on mine at any rate:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.  (See this link here for the text in full: US Declaration)

Drafted by Thomas Jefferson between June 11 and June 28, 1776, the Declaration of Independence is at once the U.S.A's most cherished symbol of liberty and Jefferson's most enduring monument. Of course, these profound convictions expressed by the erudite and articulate Thomas Jefferson were nothing new. Its political philosophy and its ideals of individual liberty had already been expressed by John Locke and the Continental philosophers. What Jefferson did was to summarize this philosophy in "self-evident truths."

The next step in chronological order was, of course, the Proclamation of the French Republic which was a natural step in the transition of France from an absolute (where the king ruled by decree) to a constitutional monarchy (where the king was a mere figure head).  The last article of Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted 26 August or 27 August, 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly (Assemblée nationale constituante), during the period of the French Revolution, as the first step toward writing a constitution for France. Many of the principles in the declaration directly oppose the institutions and usages of the ancien régime of pre-revolutionary France. France soon became a republic, and this document remains fundamental: the principles set forth in the declaration are of constitutional value in present-day French law and may be invoked in opposing legislation or other government activities.

The concepts in the declaration come from the philosophical and political principles of the Age of Enlightenment, such as individualism, the social contract as theorized by the English philosopher John Locke and developed by their own native French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the separation of powers espoused by the Baron de Montesquieu. As can be seen in the texts, the French declaration is heavily influenced by the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, and by Enlightenment principles of human rights contained in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776) (described above), of which the delegates were fully aware. Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was at the time in France as a U.S. diplomat, and was in correspondence with members of the French National Constituent Assembly.  Those of us who remember travelling to France during the days when the old French franc ruled as the currency that the three words "Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité " were inscribed on all coins - just in case one might chance to forget.  These three words make up the tripartite motto of France, and it finds its origins in the French Revolution.  All citizens, the proclamation declared, are to be guaranteed the rights of "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression". The Declaration argues that the need for law derives from the fact that "...the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights". Thus, the declaration sees law as an "expression of the general will", intended to promote this equality of rights and to forbid "only actions harmful to the society".

Interestingly  The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 defined Liberty in Article 4 as follow:

"Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights." (See here for a more comprehensive account: Equal Rights)

To be continued

Above I have uploaded a picture of the great writer and thinker and human rights writer Thomas Paine. I will discuss his contribution more fully in the next post!

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