The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights
|February 13, 2003||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 50th Anniversary
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Many organizations are celebrating the Declaration throughout the year, so it seems worthwhile to examine this Declaration mid-year rather than waiting until the actual anniversary date in December.
The UN Declaration was inspired by the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which was proclaimed in 1789 during the French Revolution, as well as by the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1791. Both of these lists of rights were inspired by “The Virginia Declaration of Rights” written by George Mason, which was adopted in 1776 by Virginia.
The UN Declaration, however, goes beyond the natural rights that George Mason and the American revolutionaries proclaimed. New claims of rights have been added, yet a fundamental human right is missing, and has been missing from the previous declarations.
Article 1 of the UN Declaration says that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 2 states that human rights are universal regardless of race, sex, religion, and nationality. Article 3 tells us that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Article 4 prohibits slavery. Article 5 prohibits torture and cruel punishment.
Article 6 says “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” Article 7 recognizes the right to equal treatment and protection. Article 8 proclaims the right to an effective legal remedy for violations of rights and laws. Article 9 says “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” Article 10 tells us everyone is entitled to a fair trial. Article 11 recognizes the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and prohibits prosecution for acts that were not crimes at the time committed.
Article 12 prohibits arbitrary interference in a person’s privacy and home. Article 13 recognizes the freedom of movement, including travelling in and out of one’s country. Article 14 says everyone has the right to asylum in other countries except for non-political crimes. Article 15 declares that everyone has a right to a nationality and may not be deprived of nationality. Article 16 recognizes the right to marry subject to consent.
Article 17 states that “(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Property in slaves has already been excluded, but the article leaves open the question of property in land and its rent. It does not recognize the equal right of all persons to a share in natural and community land.
Article 18 recognizes that right to freedom of religion. Article 19 declares the right to freedom of expression. This seems quite absolute, yet governments everywhere, including the United States, limit expression where it is regarded as “indecent” or offensive. Article 20 states the right to freedom of association. Article 21 declares that everyone has the right to take part in government and have equal access to government services. Article 21 also states that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government,” implemented by elections.
So far, these rights are implementations of the basic human right to do whatever is peaceful and honest, and to be protected from coercive harm. Article 22 goes beyond these classical natural rights and proclaims that everyone “has the right to social security and is entitled to” indispensable economic rights. “Social security” can mean many things, but most people now think of the governmental social security systems most countries now have. How much clearer and sounder it would have been for the UN Declaration to recognize that the indispensable economic rights are not forced redistributions by government but the basic natural right of a worker to keep his or her wage, and the universal human right to an equal share of the benefits of natural resources.
Article 23 says everyone has a right to work and to “equal pay for equal work.” Besides the problem of knowing what is “equal work,” this alleged right interferes with the right to own property, since it becomes a claim against the property of the employer. In a free economy, competition and the ability to be self-employed ensure that a worker will be paid in accord to what he contributes.
Article 24 declares that “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” Here again, the UN Declaration is micro-managing working conditions rather than lay out the foundation for an economy where the demand for labor would be so strong that employers would have to provide for rest and holidays.
It gets worse. Article 25 says everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living, to security when unemployed and sick. Who is to provide this? The article implies that the welfare state is a human right. But government can be a cold and cruel master. In a truly free and just economy, social security is redundant and unnecessary, as each worker has access to the resources that can provide him or her with an “adequate” standard of living.
Governmentalism continues with Article 26: “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free” and “Elementary education shall be compulsory.” The problem is that education cannot be free; somebody has to pay for it. The implication is that government pays for it, and forces all children into the system. However, the article is partly redeemed in stating that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”
Article 27 recognizes the right to participate in cultural life and states that authors have the rights to the protection of the “material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production,” implying the right to copyright and patents. Article 28 states that we have a right to the international order in which these rights can be realized. Perhaps this is meant to justify the existence of the United Nations!
Article 29 can cause trouble. It states, “Everyone has duties to the community.” Such vague language can lead government to interpret it in a way that forces people to pay taxes, obey restrictive laws, or join the military as a duty. Such vague language should be avoided in any declaration of rights, which should instead specifically tell us what our rights are. Article 29 also says that people may be subjected to limitations for meeting the “requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare.” Here again, the Declaration creates a loophole for justifying oppression in the name of morality, order, and welfare.
Finally, Article 30 says that nothing in the Declaration implies the right of any state to destroy any of the rights listed. Perhaps this recognizes the potential for violations of rights created by the loopholes in the Declaration!
On the whole, it is probably beneficial to have such a UN Declaration of Rights, but the attempt to instill rights of economic security rather than recognize the more fundamental rights to land and labor, and the lack of precision in safeguarding civil liberties and the freedom of speech and lifestyle, show that the world still needs a better and more thorough understanding of our natural and human rights.
What’s your opinion? How would you phrase an improvement to the Declaration? Tell The Progress Report what you think!
Copyright 1998 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieveal system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.