The year 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1948. The 70th anniversary allows us to look back upon the origins of the Declaration as well as to make some observations on the status of human rights today.
The Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948, just after World War II. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, at the beginning of the colonies’ war for independence against Great Britain. The French Declaration came in 1789 during the period of the French Revolution. 1776, 1789, 1948 - all three Declarations came at times of war, civil upheaval and political rupture.
In terms of time/space, The Declaration of Independence is an Anglo-Saxon document; the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is French. Both Declarations are Western in origin, although arguments for human dignity can be found in many different religious and philosophical traditions.
To have rights means that someone or something has obligations and duties to guarantee those rights. A system must be put in place to create the space to allow the rights to be implemented and to punish those who infringe on the rights. The documents have legal and political implications. To say that Robinson Crusoe had rights makes no sense.
Politically, the call for human rights was historically linked to the modern development of democracy. (Ancient Greece had limited democracy since women and slaves were not included.) To say that democracy is “of the people, by the people and for the people,” it must have a foundation on which the people have legitimacy. That foundation is human rights. There can be no human rights without democratic government to express and protect them; there can be no democracy without human rights to legitimize individual dignity. Human rights anchor democracy. The two are bound together.
The liberal order, spearheaded by the United States, became the overwhelming foundation of the post-World War II international order, with the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions at its center. While obvious tensions existed within the system during the Cold War, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 human rights and democracy promotion became the priority of U.S. foreign policy. Under American leadership during that exceptional unipolar moment, human rights and democracy were on the forefront of global politics.1989 to 2001 was a golden era for human rights and democracy promotion. An American intellectual even declared the end of history, with human rights assumed and democracy the ultimate way societies should be organized.
With the decline of U.S. power and legitimate concerns about its own human rights record, (see Abu Grahib, drone strikes, Guantanamo prison and black sites as well as the extensive recent report by United Nations Human Rights Council special rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty Professor Philip Alston on the situation of extreme poverty in the United States), are we witnessing the end of human rights? Post-2001, security trumps human rights. We may even be witnessing the end of the liberal system established after World War II under American leadership. Certainly, the right-wing populist governments in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland are indications of challenges to the post WWII order in Europe. We now refer to these countries as “illiberal democracies.” The rise of China has added another challenge to the liberal hegemony after 1945.
The 70th anniversary celebration of the Universal Declaration is far from the triumphalism of the end of history. Questions over who has the legitimacy to determine what constitutes grave breaches of human rights and who shall judge violations and carry out punishment are significant tests to the universality and relevance of human rights today. As the venerable Swiss bank Lombard Odier advertises, “rethink everything.” And human rights are certainly being rethought during this anniversary year.
Excerpts from a speech delivered in Chêne-Bougeries March 13.