Mixed inheritance

Born of UN efforts to prop up the great powers, the Declaration of Human Rights' legacy matches its odd origins, argues Jon E. Wilson

October 14, 2010

Who isn't in favour of human rights? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) has been celebrated by people who have nothing else in common, from Malcolm X to Pope John Paul II. But the declaration is far better known in its breach than its implementation.

A close reading of the text itself begins to tell us why. Proclaiming a set of principles few could disagree with, the declaration did not establish a global legal order. The document provides no direction on practical governance, other than to say it is the responsibility of individual regimes to implement human rights. The declaration powerfully enshrines the absolute power of states to decide how to enforce human rights. The preamble says they need to be "protected by the rule of law". But Article 8 of the document makes it clear it is the job of "national tribunals" to enforce those "fundamental rights" granted in the constitutions of particular states.

The men and women who built the United Nations did not intend the declaration to be anything other than a weak and unenforceable proclamation. As Mark Mazower argues in his recent book No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, the declaration involved a dramatic retreat from the emphasis on the rights of minorities that had been on the international agenda since the 1930s. In fact, human rights were a very minor part of the postwar global order.

Mazower suggests that the early UN was intended to entrench the dominance of the great powers and the principle of absolute state sovereignty, not global justice. It tried to revive rather than replace the European empires that had dominated the world in the 19th century. If the US' Declaration of Independence put the words "all men are created equal" into the mouths of slave owners, the Declaration of Human Rights was an attempt by empires rooted in inequality to say all people should be treated equally - and then do nothing about it. It was, after all, Jan Smuts - the South African advocate of an imperial internationalism based on racial difference - who wrote much of the UN Charter.

But the declaration does do something very important, which has had ambivalent consequences since. It defines people as individuals abstractly endowed with particular rights, instead of treating them as citizens or members of a political community. It begins with people as bare, living bodies, potential victims of "humanitarian catastrophe", not as citizens.

As Samuel Moyn, professor of history at Columbia University, argues, it was only in the mid-1970s that "human rights" began to be widely discussed in the Western media. Before then, the principles in the declaration had been picked up by the formerly colonised world, influencing the language of post-colonial constitutions.

After gaining independence from Pakistan thanks to the Liberation War of 1971, Bangladesh became perhaps the world's first human-rights state. The principles of the declaration were crucial to the worldwide campaign against Pakistan's genocide in Eastern Bengal. They were used by India to justify its "intervention" against its Muslim neighbour and were then woven throughout Bangladesh's constitution in 1972.

Bangladesh's first Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, defended his country's independence by saying that Pakistan had failed to protect the most basic human right of its subjects - their lives. This rhetoric of the rights of human beings rather than citizens was instrumental in Mujib's downfall, murdered in a coup in 1975.

The plotters justified their action by claiming that Bangladesh's politicians had failed to protect the population's right to life, liberty and security of person. However flawed Mujib's regime may have been, this stress on the rights of human beings rather than a self-governing polity allowed the army to justify the abolition of democracy.

Bangladesh's coup was not the last time human rights have been used to overturn popular self-government.

The power of human rights does not lie in their existence as a set of abstract international legal standards. Instead, it stems from their capacity to inspire and mobilise popular movements against injustice across the world. The language of human rights is effective only when co-opted into the politics of particular communities, which then fight to govern themselves and put the declaration's high standards into practice on their own terms.

But the silence of human-rights discourse about political struggle has often blocked the messy forms of mobilisation that are human rights' only hope in the real world. Unsurprising perhaps because of its early history, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has had an ambivalent legacy.

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