Monday, December 08, 2008

Human Rights - The Sixtieth Anniversary of the UN Declaration

Every Human Has Rights

In my last post I described what I termed the twin beacons of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Declaration of the French Republic (1789) in their defending the rights of human beings to a fair and equal treatment before the law and to a fair and equal  share of the earth's goods - twin beacons on a harsh and stormy sea of the virtually systematic denial of such rights. 

In our hour of need life always throws up great people to defend the natural rights of humankind. One such pioneer in the study of human rights must surely be Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809) whom I had the privilege of studying in our philosophy classes in the late 1970s.  Paine always acknowledged the debt humanity owed to the two revolutions I have named immediately in our first paragraph in this post and indeed his own debt to both in the formulation of his ideas.  Like all great men of that period Paine was quite a dilettante  and was an English pamphleteer, revolutionary, radical, inventor, and intellectual.  But above all he was a great humanitarian. He lived and worked in Britain until age 37 and then he emigrated to the British American colonies, just in time to participate in the American Revolution. His principal contribution to it was the powerful, widely-read pamphlet Common Sense (1776) which advocated colonial America's independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and his The American Crisis (1776–1783), a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series.

He wrote his famous Rights of Man (1791), which we read in selected photocopied chunks given us by our lecturer.  This book was essentially his reply to Edmund Burke's criticism of the principles of the French Revolution and to his defence of the aristocracy and monarchy.  Paine was openly anti-monarchist.  Essentially also this book was a guide to Enlightenment ideas.   It is also interesting to see that our man Thomas Paine, despite not speaking French, was elected to the French National Convention in 1792.  I suppose a great humanitarian is always recognised no matter what language he speaks or doesn't speak.  He was even imprisoned in Paris for his troubles for some months.  Needless to say this did not deter this committed humanitarian.

He became notorious because of The Age of Reason (1793–94), the book that advocated deism and argued strongly against orthodox Christian doctrines. In France, he also wrote the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1795), discussing the origins of property, and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income. Finally in 1802, at President Thomas Jefferson's invitation, he returned to America where he died, aged 72, in Greenwich Village, New York City in 1809. Like many other defenders of the equal rights of all he was disliked, indeed hated, in some quarters for his outspoken views and for his Enlightenment views.  However, Paine endured stoically this contumely.  He had suffered much in his private life - the death of his first wife in childbirth, the separation from the second, being thrown in  prison, narrowly missing execution under the blade of Madame Guillotine and many other 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.'  It would not have cost his a thought were he to have known that only six mourners would come to his funeral, two of whom were black, most likely freedmen.

Such then are the three beacons that remain in my mind in the early modern history of Human Rights.  Those beacons shone brightly on the darkened seas of the denial of such rights down through the years.  Then we had the horrific occurrences of two great world wars which, while they sacrificed millions of soldiers on all sides to the great unpitying god of war, also sacrificed millions of innocent lives - the lives of innocent civilians and then also the horrific and planned systematic deaths of some 11 millions in concentration and work camps under the evil Nazi regime to that same unpitying god. 

However, we now live in more enlightened times.  Last evening I viewed a wonderful documentary on our former president - Uachtarán na hÉireannMary Robinson, one of the great modern advocators and defenders of Human Rights.  It was a sheer joy to watch this programme, and a most inspiring and uplifting experience to take the message of universal brotherhood and sisterhood on board.  Robinson was the first female President of Ireland and served from 1990 to 1997 and I'm proud to say that I voted for her in 1990.  I also had the privilege of meeting her and shaking her hand at a presentation of awards in Dublin Castle in the early 1990s.  She was also the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 1997 to 2002.  She had wished to go on for a second term of office, but the USA blocked her re-nomination for selfish reasons.  After all she was a thorn in the side of George Bush who flagrantly promoted policies that denied human rights in many parts of the world. One could not have an upstart like Robinson challenging America on its abuse of power and on its evident and systematic denial of human rights.  Among many other prestigious international roles  she serves on many boards including the GAVI Fund. Robinson’s newest project is Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative (an organization she helped found with (former) President Jimmy Carter of the USA) which fosters equitable trade and decent work, promotes the right to health and more humane migration policies, works to strengthen women's leadership and encourage corporate responsibility. The organization also supports capacity building and good governance in developing countries. 

As an Irishman I am, like all my co-citizens, exceptionally proud of this exceptional woman.  She is at once a towering intellectual, a wonderful politician in the stateswoman sense of that term, a wonderful lawyer, a woman with a panoramic  vision of what is possible in this oftentimes sad world of ours, a truly generous person, a woman with a bold courage to challenge any prejudices wherever she meets them and a true humanitarian.  It is encouraging to know that Ireland can have such a wonderful influence on the welfare of humanity.  Molaim í is ardmholaim í, bean neamheaglach, laoch den scoth, daonnúlacht iontach, bean léinn agus ceannaire údarach domhanda sna cearta daona.  Nár laga Dia do lámh!  Ar aghaidh, Máire Mhic Róibín.  Go maire tú i bhfad.

Some Human Rights Links:

Here I wish to give some links on Human Rights and especially links with respect to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

1. Feed A Child With Just a Click here: Feed a Child

2. Human Rights Violations Worldwide here Witness

3. The UN Declaration of Human Rights here Human Rights

4. Official 60th Anniversary Site here 60th Anniversary

5. The Irish Human Rights Commission Irish Commission

6. The Irish Centre for Human Rights NUIG  Rights Centre NUIG

7.  The UN here  UN

8. The Council of Europe here  Council of Europe


10. The UN Refugee Agency here UNHCR

11. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights here UNHCR Commissioner

12. The European Court for Human Rights here ECHR

13. Amnesty International Amnesty

14. Human Rights First here First

15. The Red Cross here Cross

16.  The World Organization Against Torture here Torture

17. East Timor Human Rights Page here East Timor Rights

18. The International Foundation for The Protection of Human Rights here Frontline

19. Every Human Has Rights - Facebook Cause here Join the Greatest Cause

20.  Siamo Veramente Tanto Fortunati - Facebook Cause here Fortunati

Above I have uploaded a picture of the great contemporary Human Rights activist and international stateswoman and schlar Mary Robinson, former Uachtarán na hÉireann.

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!