The Call to Uphold Human Rights

As 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of UDHR, it is rather timely to reflect – as a community and as an individual – upon the gains and lapses of the implementation of the Declaration amidst the criticisms it has received.

With the aim of coming up with a road map to safeguard the rights of every individual everywhere, the international community, through the United Nations (UN), came up with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). In April-May 1946, the Economic and Social Council established the Nuclear Commission that was tasked to propose the new Commission on Human Rights (CHR). In the first session in 1947, the CHR authorized its members to come up with a draft of international bill of rights. This duty was later assumed by a formal drafting committee comprised of 18 members coming from eight states and with varied political, cultural, religious and geographical backgrounds. Some of the core group members were Eleanor Roosevelt (Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights; First Lady of the USA from 1933-1945), Pen-Chun Chang (Vice-Chair of the Commission on Human Rights; playwright, philosopher, educator and diplomat from China), Charles Malik (Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights; philosopher and diplomat from Lebanon), John Humphrey (Director of the UN Secretariat’s Division for Human Rights; lawyer from Canada), and René Cassin (Member of the CHR; jurist and judge from France). On 10 December 1948, by the Resolution 217 A (III), the General Assembly that was held in Paris and participated in by more than 50 Member States formally adopted the UDHR.

Throughout the years from its adoption, the UDHR has received various criticisms, two of which are the more crucial ones: How can there be a universal document on human rights in this highly diverse world (cultural relativism)? Is this Declaration only a tool of the Western world to universalize their set of values and ideas (cultural imperialism/neo-colonialism)?

In the writing of Mary Ann Glendon entitled Foundations of Human Rights: Unfinished Business, the author explains that the UDHR, although imperfect, is a multicultural documented, and thus, cannot be categorized as merely “Western”. The author argues that the said declaration gave room to a healthy dose of pluralism, taking into account diverse cultures when it was drafted. It is noted that the more active and prominent members of the eighteen-member Human Rights Commission were people from the less-developed nations, referring to China’s Peng-chun Chang, Lebanon’s Charles Malik, the Philippines’ Carlos Romulo, and Chile’s Hernàn Santa Cruz.

The first draft, a 408-page document, threshed out the relationship of each article to existing world’s constitutions. In the second draft, comments were obtained from Brazil, Egypt, India, Mexico, and Pakistan, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States. In the near-final draft, there were 58 Member States present that compose the Committee on Social, Cultural and Humanitarian Affairs (or called as the Third Committee) that reviewed the draft. This Committee included a large American contingent, six members from Asia, and four from Africa. Also, six of the “European” members were at that time part of the Communist bloc, eleven with Islamic background, and four with sizable Buddhist populations.

And so, even if others would contend that a considerable portion of the world was not represented in the UN at that time, including the Axis powers and substantial portions of Africa and Asia (the latter two were still under colonial rule at that time), it cannot be denied that the Declaration, which was prepared for two years, is unprecedented in terms of scrutiny, variety of sources, and representation of various religions and cultures. Later on, when the newly liberated countries had gained their independence, they adopted constitutions that were aligned with the principles of UDHR. Furthermore, in 1993, almost all the countries in the world accepted the Vienna Human Rights Declaration, which goes to show their agreement with the UDHR.

With regard to the critique that the values espoused by UDHR are solely Western, this point was countered by philosophers such as Jacques Maritain and Richard McKeon, who explained in his writing, “The Philosophic Bases and Material Circumstances of the Rights of Man”, that general ideas of human conduct, which include freedom, dignity, tolerance and neighborliness, are widely shared in the international community to the extent that these commonalities point to the implicit nature of man as a relational being. With these said, Glendon reasons that focus should not be put on “who had the idea first, but whether the idea is a good one; not where the idea was born, but whether it is conducive to human flourishing”.

As year 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of UDHR, it is rather timely to reflect – as a community and as an individual – upon the gains and lapses of the implementation of the Declaration amidst the criticisms it has received. The world event that triggered the birth of the Declaration, the World War II, may be shelved now as merely an event in the historical past, but nonetheless, the call to uphold human rights continues to persist. The challenges may differ at the moment, but the contents of the Declaration are still the same. The job was not finished upon ratifying the UDHR; it was only the beginning of a long and arduous battle. As long as there are are threats to freedom, equality, liberty, safety, and dignity of even a single person, human rights defendants – who are not only those seated in human rights groups like UNCHR and Human Rights Watch but encompass every single person – cannot rest on their laurels. The modern society may have attained a tremendous degree of success in various fronts such as trade, inventions, and digital innovations, but the more crucial question to ponder may be this – How have we progressed in our understanding and living universal societal values such as compassion and peace?

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