Worth the paper they're written on?

IssueMay 2006
Comment by Jeff Cloves

The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (www.un.org/right) was read daily at a “War & Peace” exhibition in the Friends' Meeting House in Nailsworth, Glos, during the last week of April.

The Declaration was drafted in 1947 by John Powers Humphrey (a Canadian who later helped establish Amnesty International Canada) and was adopted by the UN in 1948. Since then, some of the world's most unpleasant and dangerous regimes have paid lip service to it while simultaneously undermining it. Where then, we might ask, does that leave the British and American governments, their illegal occupation of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the 15,000 detainees still awaiting trial?

Victorious assumptions

I was invited to recite part of the Declaration but felt obliged to read it first. A revelation! I found myself strongly opposed to its liberal pieties - and the underlying assumptions which shaped them - and declined.

On reflection, I should have known what to expect. The Declaration was the product of the victorious allies of World War Two and - consciously, or unconsciously - reflected their assumption that the supposed values of Western Christianity could, and should, be applicable to the whole world. Were any Hindus, Buddhists, Islamists, atheists, even consulted? I doubt it, and how might they have felt about Article 16:

  • Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  • Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  • The family* is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.


It is claimed that the draft Declaration had “Man” in its title and Eleanor Roosevelt herself changed it to “Human”. However, the male pronoun still features throughout and it's high time that its language be changed. Actually, I think its content should be changed too but, this time, only after consultation will all its signatories. And this, surely, is a change the peace movement at large should be promoting.

Variations on a theme

I've found, you see, that there exists a Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (www.alherwar.com), which was signed on 19 September 1981 “to mark the 15th century of the Islamic Era”. Unlike the UN's Declaration it makes no secret of its theological input: “Human Rights in Islam are firmly rooted in the belief that God, and God alone, is the Law Giver and the Source of all human rights. Due to their Divine origin, no ruler, government, assembly or authority can curtail or violate in any way the human rights conferred by God, nor can they be surrendered.”

This Declaration states it is “based on the Qur'an and the Sunnah”, but there also exists the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's religions (www.worldreligionsafter911.com) which was signed on 10 December 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the UN's Declaration.

I also found on the net a Universal Declaration of Animal Rights (www.uncaged.co.uk) which was proclaimed in October 1978, and a proposal for a Universal Declaration of Human Wrongs (www.counterpunch.org). Counterpunch is a US “political newsletter” which proposes such a Declaration and argues that “It is wrong to establish a category of human beings who have no rights.”

The disenfranchised

As our Minister for Violence, Mr Reid, feels it perfectly proper to propose that the Geneva Convention be softened - the better to facilitate his government's War on Terror - it becomes ever more important that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be strengthened. Despite the Convention and despite the Declaration, the Guantanamo prisoners are just a part of an endlessly-enlarging community which has no human rights.

Topics: Human rights
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