70 Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Brief summary of presentation of information made
The United Nations Singers, a diverse choir group, opened the programme with three vocal selections about peace and human rights.
In a pre-recorded video message, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, talked about the human flourishing that can take place if everyone around the world knew about and respected human rights. The global standards of living, he argued, would increase dramatically if everyone treated all human beings as equals.
Al-Hussein concluded by making the point that in Western cultures, we have become so accustomed to a universal understanding of human rights that we even fail to recognise when they are respected. We are also, however, more surprised and outraged when they are not. This outrage should be a motivating factor to get the world to come together and take a stand for human rights.
The meeting’s chairperson explained some of the history behind Human Rights Day. On 10 December 1948, the UN published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, it is the most translated legal document in the world, available in over 500 languages.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the United States representative to the UN at the time, chaired the committee that wrote the document throughout the two-year writing process. Rather than continue to explain the process, the chairperson called on Eleanor Roosevelt (acted out by a Roosevelt historian) to explain more about herself and the process. The chairperson introduced Mrs Roosevelt by citing a famous quote about her: “No woman has ever so comforted the distressed or distressed the comfortable”.
(The woman portraying) Roosevelt began with some life background. After 12 years in the White House, making Roosevelt the United States’ longest-serving first lady, the American president, Harry Truman, appointed her to represent the United States at the fledgling United Nations. Upon arrival at the UN, she had much to learn, believing herself to have no qualifications for the important position. Additionally, Roosevelt was one of very few women at the UN at the time. Making her voice heard was difficult, especially considering the responsibilities she had.
The UN representatives chose to make Roosevelt the chair of the Human Rights Commission, and she believes this was to keep her from meddling in or disrupting the more ‘important’ committees dealing with defence, trade and finance. Roosevelt, however, saw a great potential to change the way human beings see and treat each other. Since the UN formed shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, preventing another destructive war was on all the delegates’ minds.
Roosevelt realised that when war is over, all the unmet needs that led to war in the first place still exist. In fact, in many cases, war has made those needs more pronounced. The conclusion that she drew, therefore, was that war does not lead to peace. Peace can only be reached by cooperating to that end. Roosevelt traced many of humanity’s biggest hurdles to two things: first, a lack of peace. Second, a systematic denial of human rights to some of the most vulnerable people among us. Roosevelt believed that the two phenomena were intertwined, and that working for human rights could bring peace.
Once the Human Rights Commission came together, it became clear that writing the document would be painstakingly difficult. The writers had to debate every single word. Consider a couple of examples. For Article 1, the writers initially wanted to quote directly from the USA’s Declaration of Independence and state “all men are created equal”. However, several problems arose. First, the word men was not gender-inclusive and served to perpetuate inequality. The writers changed it to human beings. Second, the verb created implied a religiously weighted assumption on the origin of humanity. The committee elected the more neutral word born. Finally, the word equal was ideal, but vague. In what way are they equal? The committee identified three equalities: equality of opportunity, equality of justice, and equality of dignity.
As a second example for the difficulty of each word, consider the French phrase personnalité juridique. This is a complex legal term that recognises an entity’s personhood, and as such a possessor of human rights. Juridical personality, the English translation, had only been used once in Anglophone high court decisions. Obviously, this was not a familiar term outside of French and would be difficult to understand, let alone translate. The committee had to select each word in a way that would minimise misunderstanding, especially for translating to over 500 other languages.
The historian then left her character to take questions from the present representatives. In response to a question about making children aware of their human rights, the historian stressed the inclusion of human rights in secondary school curriculums.
Another person asked about the process of identifying what qualified as a true human right, and what did not. The historian first conceded that the document is not set in stone, and that amendments and additions have been considered over the years, although never completed. At the time, the committee consisted of representatives from numerous countries and cultures, including France, Lebanon, Chile, China and the Soviet Union. The committee would not even consider including a draft article unless all members unanimously agreed that it qualified as a human right. The standard was very high. The historian also noted that if a draft article did not make it into the document, it was still used as a policy recommendation for national governments.
The event concluded with a brief word from Roosevelt, who said that we must continue to put faith in the UN as the world’s most reliable forum for avoiding miscommunication and controversy. A world without war is achievable once human rights are respected and conflict resolution is pursued through a dialogue that includes all parties. At an individual level, Roosevelt stressed participation in civil society and democracy to make sure your voice is heard.
What was of particular significance to share with The Salvation Army globally?
The topic of human rights is a difficult one for The Salvation Army and Christianity in general. Human rights are often thought of as a secular edition of Biblical commandments and teaching. Should we be pursuing human rights because that is what the international community has agreed upon as the standard-bearer of justice and fairness, or should we be Kingdom-building in accordance with the Scriptures? Are they mutually exclusive?
A second issue is the ever-expanding definition of what qualifies as a human right. Roosevelt and the Human Rights Commission encountered the problem, and it remains unresolved. Technology has added more wrinkles to the issue, as people debate if media, mobile communication and internet are human rights. The Salvation Army could make an interesting theological contribution to this area.
A third issue is if human rights fit into The Salvation Army’s mission. The Declaration of Human Rights lays out 30 Articles with more than 30 specific human rights that governments and individuals should acknowledge and work to provide. It is therefore a system of measurement, for measuring how the world is doing in promoting growth, equality and opportunity. Should The Salvation Army use human rights as a measuring stick for its own work in these areas? Does the Declaration of Human Rights conflict with another measurement tool, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?
Web links for more information
http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ Universal Declaration of Human Rights
http://www.un.org/en/sections/universal-declaration/history-document/index.html A Brief History of the DeclarationTags: United Nations, SDG10: Reduced Inequalities, SDG16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, SDG1: No Poverty, SDG4: Quality Education, SDG8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG5: Gender Equality, SDG3: Good Health and Well-Being, Events, SDG17: Partnerships for the Goals, SDG2: Zero Hunger