UNITED NATIONS — Seventy years after its adoption, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was lauded Dec. 4 as a seminal, yet imperfect achievement of the nascent United Nations.
Speakers at a panel honored the foresight of the declaration’s framers, but also warned that recognition of “new and deeply troubling rights” will contradict the document’s noble intent.
Msgr. Tomasz Grysa, deputy permanent observer of the Holy See to the U.N., said human rights are at the core of the United Nations, but the U.N. Charter did not “specify what those fundamental human rights were.”
The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, chaired by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was tasked with identifying “both political and civil rights, including life, liberty, property, freedom of speech, religion and assembly, and economic, social and cultural rights. Like work, education and basic subsistence,” he said.
The rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were practical and made to guide action, Msgr. Grysa added.
“They flowed from the conviction that every person needs to be treated like every other human being” and were framed in relation to both states and institutions like the family, local communities and religious groups to acknowledge that “human beings are persons in solidarity and fraternity rather than isolated individuals,” he said.
Msgr. Grysa said the “genius” of the declaration is “its 30 articles leave room for different understandings and applications according to local contexts. It was drafted to be relevant to all peoples in a pluralistic world and has permitted diverse cultures, institutions and legal systems to converge around a fundamental nucleus of values, transcending divisions and appealing to our shared humanity.”
He said the declaration’s universality, unity and objectivity were fundamental to the framers, but have been challenged in recent years.
The declaration is intended to be valid for all people and its provisions cannot be denied for cultural, political, social, philosophical or religious reasons. Those who view the declaration as a list of separate guarantees that one can choose to defend or dismiss undermine every right in the declaration.
“Once some rights become optional, every right does,” Msgr. Grysa said.
The priest recounted Pope Francis’ January 2018 remarks about the declaration. The pontiff is concerned, he said, “about how the language of human rights and even the human rights monitoring mechanisms are being used to advance newly claimed rights that not only do not enjoy international agreement but in many cases reinterpret the declaration in ways contrary to the rights explicitly defended.”
Michael Farris, president and CEO of the Alliance Defending Freedom and ADF International, said the declaration is “a skyscraper of human aspiration toward the good, right and beautiful” but is menaced by “thunderclouds.”
He said recent proposals considered by the U.N. Committee on Human Rights sought to establish a right to abortion and euthanasia.
He said the proposals were “denounced by governments around the world,” but are “representative of a broader trend.”
While some members of the international community continue to seek consensus on the foundational rights, others want to create new ones that are incompatible with the original, which will lead to “a contradictory framework that countries around the world will increasingly disregard,” he said.
Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, said the U.N. Human Rights Commission overcame formidable obstacles to win approval of the declaration without a single dissenting vote.
“For one thing, no one really knew whether there were any principles so widely shared that they had a good chance of being accepted by all of the then-58 members of the United Nations,” she said. For another, the deepening rift between Russia and the West, plus the crisis in Palestine meant that the chances of finding broad agreement on anything at all were becoming increasingly small.”
“Though there were eight abstentions,” she continued, “the impressive multinational consensus achieved in 1948 seemed to bear out the framers’ conviction that some things are so terrible in practice that virtually no one will openly approve them, and that some things are so conducive to human flourishing that virtually no one will openly oppose them.”
Hardly anyone imagined the declaration would significantly alter the terrain of international relations, Glendon said.
Nonetheless, “the declaration successfully challenged the view that sovereignty provided an iron shield behind which states could mistreat their people without outside scrutiny. This alone was an achievement of historic proportions,” she said.
Robert P. George, who holds the McCormack chair in jurisprudence at Princeton University, said religious freedom is a fundamental human right that must be extended to people of all beliefs and no beliefs.
Paolo Carozza, professor of law and political science at the University of Notre Dame, said the declaration is not binding and is unenforceable, but various international bodies have been created to monitor violations and encourage adherence.
Panelists acknowledged that in some places in the world, the declaration is honored more in the breach than in adherence to its articles. They said the international response must be vigilance and recommitment to fundamental human rights and the dignity of the human person, they said.
Msgr. Grysa said this will ensure “that the declaration, obtained at such tremendous cost, might remain one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time just like it was in the minds and hearts of the framers and peoples of the world seven decades ago.”
The event, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Foundations, Achievement, Violations,” was co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the U.N. and ADF International.