Universal Declaration of Human Rights
October 13, 2008 12:00 AM   Subscribe

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (QT). The words of the Declaration are brought to life in honor of its 60th anniversary (also on YouTube). [Via Cool Hunting]
posted by homunculus (23 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Let's hope that it won't take another 60 years to become a declaration of human rights which are actually universal.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:50 AM on October 13, 2008

Thanks for the link. Where is this utopia?
posted by keijo at 1:00 AM on October 13, 2008

Cool video. Reminds me of those Typography in motion videos. Nice music, too... for some reason the pessimistic tone seems to fit.

Also: an alternative view of the UDHR.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:00 AM on October 13, 2008

Amnesty International made another UDHR animation.
posted by homunculus at 1:15 AM on October 13, 2008

I was terrified I would see a [more inside] with a list of the articles, and for every article, a link to a page or a youtube video showing the rights not being granted (or worse). And now that I know there isn't one, I'm not sure how I feel.
posted by SteelyDuran at 1:22 AM on October 13, 2008

posted by pompomtom at 1:38 AM on October 13, 2008

I don't like the UDHR. It implicitly puts lawyers and bureaucrats ahead of democracy and the will of the people as a principle, both in the way it was generated (When did we get a chance to discuss these articles? When can we vote on them?) and in the way it bases its claims on the dubious doctrine of natural rights.

It's pompous and foggily drafted. Look at Article 6: "Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law." The obvious logical snag is that you have to be recognised as 'a person before the law' before Article 6 applies to you anyway. In a real case where personhood is at issue, such as abortion, it says nothing.

Of course, not all the articles are quite so evidently daft as that, but it's far from untypical. If we must make portentous declarations, let's declare that rights come from the determination of free people to have them and defend them; the documents are secondary.
posted by Phanx at 2:26 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's pompous and foggily drafted.

Or, uses transcendant language designed to cover as much ground or as many people as possible. But hey, tomayto, tomahto.

It's a declaration of human rights, for crying out loud. Who is being harmed?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:37 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't get the UDHR. is it supposed to be a model for governance or what? What is it really meant to mean or be?

model for an ideal world?
posted by mary8nne at 2:54 AM on October 13, 2008

> ...a link to a page or a youtube video showing the rights not being granted

Well, here's the United Nations itself taking a shot at Article 19 (freedom of opinion and expression.) Reporters Without Borders is not happy about it; nor is the International Humanist and Ethical Union, nor Human Rights Watch (paragraph 6.)

The unhchr.ch site (linked in the initial post, for the text of the resolution) also has a page showing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights. Uh, I mean part of the mandate; doesn't bother to mention the changes.
posted by jfuller at 3:03 AM on October 13, 2008

Like Phanx I find the doctrine of natural rights problematic, and it's very rooted in Judeo-Christian/Western ideas for something that aims to be universal. I've done a fair bit of translation of Chinese academic arguments about rights and it seemed to me (even if much official Chinese rejection of criticism on rights grounds is dishonest) in the end philosophically there are Chinese schools of thought on much less shaky ground - ethics as negotiated norms rather than rights granted a priori by some transcendent power or ideal. But as I said, I'm just a translator and no real scholar of the philosophies on either side.
posted by Abiezer at 3:17 AM on October 13, 2008

ethics as negotiated norms rather than rights granted a priori by some transcendent power or ideal.

Benjamin Franklin famously got Thomas Jefferson to change the line "we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "we hold these truths to be self-evident" when the U.S. Declaration of Independence was being written.

Crafty fellow that Franklin. I would assert that every article of the UDHR is "self-evident" (though, perhaps, not always intelligible).
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:36 AM on October 13, 2008

It's a heck of a mission statement, but a pretty poor rulebook. Eleanor & al. did a lot of reaching and ultimately came up with an unenforceable document which now serves only to stoke the indignation of activists and a few blessed diplomats. This is all not to mention the contradictions within the document itself-- the freedom and equality of article 1 contradicts the special protections for mothers and children in 25.2.

I suppose we might take some comfort in knowing that the world is more free today than it was in 1948. Perhaps not so free (or even nearly so free) as the framers had hoped, but there has been undeniable progress.
posted by The White Hat at 4:26 AM on October 13, 2008

These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 4:38 AM on October 13, 2008

It seems to me that the UDHR is a good concept badly realised. For the most part the document attempts to set forth some very basic and intrinsic rights for all human beings, which imho is a good place to start and a positive framework for a peaceful and prosperous global society.

However, in reference to the points that Phanx put forward, it does seem to have some underlying problems with being caught up in legal rhetoric and catch all clauses that, while not overtly undermining human rights, does tilt its hat to big business and corporatism.

For example, take Article 17 in conjunction with Article 6. Now, while this wording seems innocuous the UDHR does flip-flop between the term Human Being and Person a fair amount. If you search those terms out in Black's Law Dictionary there is a massive difference. When coupled with Article 6, Article 17's inclusion of the phrase "in association with others" is more than a strong nod in the direction of allowing corporations to adopt (and frequently exploit) the all the rights of an individual.

I'm no tin-hatter, but in law and government the definition of terms is one of the core concepts. The wishy-washy nature of the UDHRs wording allows for more than a little interpretation. However, because the document holds no direct authority over governments or law in any country means that discussion of ratifying its terminology or tenants would be, by and large, a moot point.

However, as a concept the UDHR is on the right track but is a slow moving train. What we need (eventually) is a more globally minded system of governance, being focused on the prosperity of its constituents, rather than corporatism and the many instances of corruption that that agenda seems to entail. Yes, it is a scary prospect but its is fast becoming evident that capitalism is definitely NOT WORKING, and we need to radically rethink the whole structure of government and not just try and put band-aids on the cancer. Once you can have a government that is global in nature, then you could make people more directly accountable for violations of human rights, rather than a good-will gesture that the UDHR seems to be atm.
posted by Don't_deceive_with_belief at 4:40 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think the main problem, the one that has Phanx bothered, is that the UN is not a democratic body, nor is it a government. It is an association of *states*, not individuals. Some states have privileges not granted to others (eg: the permanent members of the security council and their veto powers).

Therefore there's no mechanism for individuals to participate in the UN, its declaration of rights, etc. We can't vote on it because we aren't supposed to. The nations we are citizens of voted on it (sort of), and in theory one could see that as a sort of indirect democracy but in practice it doesn't really work that way.

Which is, in essence, the problem with the UN. Its a place for member nations to get together and talk, and as an essentially powerless negotiating body the fact that its making universal declarations of rights is pretty silly and/or inappropriate. Don't get me wrong, we need an international negotiating body. The UN serves a valuable purpose. But when it starts getting involved in stuff it can't really affect (like human rights) it starts looking like a deliberate mockery.

Not that the ideals expressed in the UDHR aren't (mostly) good [1], but its nothing but a mockery of those ideals because its just empty talk. No sanctions are imposed on any UN member nations for blatant and flagrant violations of the UDHR. I mean, in 2009 Saudi Arabia is going to be in a position of power in the Human Rights Council, if that isn't essentially the UN saying "fuck your human rights" I don't know what is. Note that according to the language of the Council itself "members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights". Yup, Saudi sure is known for upholding the *highest* standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.

So, yeah, nice intent but the fact that its coming from the wrong place, the wrong forum, makes it an ugly mockery.

[1] 16.3: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State." Not only have we moved away from individual rights, but it seems as if that section were designed to abridge human rights in the name of the family "Sorry Jane, I know you'd like a divorce but the family is entitled to protection". And, of course, the fundies can claim it means the UDHR is opposed to gay marriage.
posted by sotonohito at 5:59 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Errr... it's not the 60th anniversary. That happens December 10th.

I'm teaching the UDHR today, so I was totally hoping that I'd accidentally scheduled it for the anniversary of the signing. Very disappointed.

Here's a puzzler: how can Article 20 and Article 23 coexist? On the one hand, "No one may be compelled to belong to an association," and on the other, "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

Here's another brain-teaser. Article 26 contradicts ITSELF: "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."

Sounds good, right? But it also allows home schooling and Amish self-exclusion: "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."

Criticisms of natural law theory are weirdly out of place when it comes to the UDHR, since this doesn't pretend to be a 'discovery' of some pre-existing rights. It's positive law, though it doesn't contain punitive measures, and as such it constrains international public law in ways that are often weak and unsatisfying but nonetheless make small and meaningful differences. Maybe it doesn't solve every problem, but no document ever did: they just serve as aspirational guides to populations willing to be inspired to act. That's what it says, right at the top: after WWII and the Shoah, the UN felt that member nations needed "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction."

Say all you want about our shortcomings in meeting these rights: I'd love to hear it. But don't pretend that there's a meaningful criticism of Article 4 ("No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms") such that we ought to disregard it. It is not controversial or wrong just because a lawyer wrote it and we never voted on it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:01 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't think it was ever meant to be an enforceable code of ethics; I see the UDHR as an attempt that the world leaders of 60 years ago made to try to all get on the same page in terms of a basic code of ethics. I see them as an expression of ideals to reach for, ideals that the majority of the people in the world agree are good ideas, or at the very least said, "okay, I'll buy that."

Nearly every nation whose representatives signed this document has had instances of going back on these articles. And at least, with this document in existance, other nations can point to it and say, "okay, look, we've been over this already, so you know that what you're doing right now is not cool. And we'll keep this in mind when we're considering how to handle that trade negotiation we've got coming up with you...."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:35 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know much about legal theory, anotherpanacea, so I will be grateful for any education you can provide (really - no snarkasm intended).

I don't think I've come across the concept of natural law, which may or may not be the same as the concept of natural rights. What I mean to say is essentially what Bentham said: that talk of (natural) rights is nonsense, and talk of inalienable rights is nonsense on stilts. Reading the preamble it looks to me as if the Declaration is invoking inherent, inalienable, moral rights which it merely plans to document more authoritatively; I get no sense that these are meant to be new-minted rights deriving legitimacy only from the UN's say-so, capable of being withdrawn or redrawn arbitrarily if that body should choose at some later date.

Your view on the slavery article is (I think) that the sentiment is so good it bears any amount of repetition: but repetition and variation is not clarification. The Declaration offers no definition of slavery and throws in the confusing term 'servitude'. I've spent most of my life in some form or other of servitude. If this isn't just a redundant synonym, I don't understand what it means: no more butlers? Monks no longer to be allowed to swear obedience to the Rule of St Benedict? The prohibition of slavery actually ends up more fuzzy than before, and we end up arguing about the details of the piece of paper instead of directly about morality, which is unhelpful. IMO, etc
posted by Phanx at 10:15 AM on October 13, 2008

Here's a good summary of natural law theory. Then you'll want to learn about positivism, the position you're espousing and which Bentham, along with John Austin, basically founded. Then look at HLA Hart's attempt to parse the distinction.

So there's a basic education. A fuller one would require you to learn about Hans Kelsen, read Scalia and Breyer, and then consider Rawls, Dworkin, Finnis, and Raz. That'd still leave a lot of room to distinguish human from constitutional and other kinds of legal rights, for which we'd need Pogge, Risse, probably Ricoeur and a few others. In short, it's a seminar, not a chat. But, for the sake of argument, what in your view would be a meaningful act vis-a-vis Article 4? Surely your only complaint is not that it's not specific enough? Say we define slavery and servitude (we'll probably end up using the phrase 'involuntary' to distinguish maid services from human traffickers) are you satisfied then?

Put another way, what is the ground for a legal obligation that you would accept as doing meaningful work? It can't be substantive: it's not that you have some deeply harbored skepticism that domination and treating human beings as property is a violation of a fundamental norm, despite your spurious claims regarding religious orders. After all, if a monk chose to leave the order, surely you'd defend his right to renege on his vows? Is your complaint procedural: how the article came to be written and declared, or lack of punitive measures or adequate firepower to back up the threat? Is it a legitimacy problem, a matter of: "who the hell are these fat cats to tell me what's right and wrong?"
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:56 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Errr... it's not the 60th anniversary. That happens December 10th.

Quite right, I should have pointed that out in the FPP.
posted by homunculus at 12:26 PM on October 13, 2008

Thanks, panacea. I reallly had in mind an explanation rather than a bibliography. However, having read or re-read all that (alright, not really: some of those texts I'm saving up for my old age. I've got Scalia pencilled in for when I'm 350 - assuming no new interesting or worthwhile books are written in the meantime), I can see that the concept of natural rights and the theory of natural law are indeed connected. What eludes me is how you can read that preamble as doing anything other than offer natural rights as a basis for the Declaration.

The first sentence reads:

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world"

But you say it:

"doesn't pretend to be a 'discovery' of some pre-existing rights".

All I can say is, you have a capacious bookshelf there, but you're not making any sense to me.
posted by Phanx at 2:33 AM on October 16, 2008

Let me put it another way. The Benthamite complaint is that it doesn't make sense to talk about "natural rights" because in the absence of thoroughly artificial institutions like courts and police, these so-called 'rights' have no protection, no guarantor. And once you build artificial institutions, they're no longer guaranteeing anything 'natural,' but rather something artificial, contingent, and very, very precarious: unequally enforced, abused, and subject to arbitrary amendation.

The problem is that Benthamites get lost in the semantics of natural obligations. I'm perfectly happy to live in an unnatural world, and lucky that it is one that is substantively committed to freedom, justice,and peace. Even though we frequently fail to live up to our commitments, and those failures are very disappointing, they're still our commitments.

We've been at this a while, and we've decided that it's a contingent fact about such institutions that you only get "freedom, justice, and peace" if your completely artificial system protects certain rights. The rights weren't there before the institutions, they're not 'pre-existing,' and often, still, we see institutions like third-world nation-states unable to guarantee these rights for the large majority of their population. So they're unnatural, and easily lost from a practical perspective, and preambles that say otherwise are as hyperbolic and aspirational as you point out. Preambles, however, don't enunciate rights, any more than the US Constitution's preamble, all on its own, "ensures domestic tranquility." That's why they start with the wiggle word 'Whereas,' or in our case, 'in order to.'

Here's what we know: rights-violations go hand in hand with domination, injustice, and violence. Moreover, the arbiter of public international law has rendered these rights positively, proclaiming them explicitly, and individual nation states have agreed to respect and protect them to the best of their ability. The UDHR is no more 'nonsense on stilts' than the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and for the same reasons: just because a right isn't self-executing doesn't make it any less a right.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:29 AM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

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