Seeing Anne Elicano’s facebook status reminded me of Mary Ann Glendon’s A World Made New – a historical account of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On one hand, one would think how simple it should have been to list down all the things a person deserved and ought to have in his/her lifetime, and that it would be just as simple to list the things that one should not do to a fellow human being. On the other hand, if it were that simple to recognize the dos and don’ts of human nature, then it should have followed that the “do not dos” would not ever have happened. It also wouldn’t have taken the commission two years to draft.
War as a Necessity?
Sixty years ago today, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the international community. Shaken by the atrocities of World War II, the world finally decided that something should be done. “The Holocaust altered forever the way in which people considered human rights. Prior to World War II the prevalent attitude had been that the protection of human rights was primarily a domestic concern” The war made it clear that human rights is a universal concern and that there was a need for the international community to protect and uphold these rights. In order to keep the peace among the nations, the United Nations (UN) was established (1945). In 1946, the Commission on Human Rights was established by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It took more than two years for the commission to come up with a document that articulated the fundamental and inalienable rights of all people that all nations involved agreed to. By 1948, the draft declaration, which the commission had worked on, was proposed to the members of the UN. The debates continued throughout the year in the General Assembly’s Third Committee. On 10 December 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Forty-eight nations voted for the declaration, eight abstained and two were not present during the vote. Of course, the global community welcomed this document because it articulated the basic rights and needs of each individual. I mean, who could say no to human rights and human dignity (openly that is)? What sucks is that the carnage that took place during the war was what was needed in order to emphasize the need to protect the rights of the people.
I’m exaggerating. I would like to believe that war was not needed to recognize the rights of people – but it definitely pushed the international community to articulate it and safeguard what should have been quite obvious in the first place.
The preamble states the main idea of the declaration – that the international body recognizes the inherent dignity of each person and the equal, inalienable rights of all individuals. It articulates the importance of the declaration, noting that the recognition of this dignity and these rights is the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
Inherent. Inalienable. Such big words. The first few words in the preamble are enough to make blood flow from the ears and noses of anyone who will give the document the time of day. These words are easily skipped, heck, the preamble is easily skipped – as most human rights groups go straight to the meat of the document which lists the specific rights.
One should never underestimate the importance of the introduction though. It sets the tone and the framework of the people who drafted the document. It gives the lens that is needed to view UDHR.
Inherent dignity of each person – obviously, we aren’t just talking about pride or some superficial worth here. Each person, because he or she is human, is valuable. It is natural. It is innate. It is your Being, your humanity, ang iyong pagkatao – not affected or altered by any variables that could make you different from other people. Each person has dignity because he is human. This can go on in philosophical debate – but I will not even attempt to go there because I’m not really supposed to be typing this in the first place. I’m supposed to be studying for statistics. Regardless, because of the trafficking paper I just finished, I am somewhat on a human rights roll. So I shall continue.
Human dignity is the foundation of human rights.
And it is because of this natural worth, that we recognize the inalienable rights of individuals. There is a distinction between dignity and rights – and it drives me up the wall when people interchange it. The very reason why we recognize ones rights is because we see their worth as people. Human dignity begets human rights – and not the other way around.
I remember one of my trainees asking me if a poor person who begs in the street has dignity.
If one defines it as pride or that superficial worth that we were talking about earlier (and yes, I know this is the language used by groups like Gawad Kalinga… “restoring the dignity” and all that) – we can probably say no. But if defined as his/her worth as a person – then dear God, yes. It is because we see the humanity in this person, regardless of color, cleanliness, and economic status that we can say yes, he has dignity – and it is because of that, that we are appalled by the situation he is in. Because we know that all people are above that. If a person does not have a roof over his head, food for his family or a voice in his country – it does not mean he is worth nothing, it just means his worth is not recognized enough.
And so the preamble continues… it is in recognition of this dignity and rights that we can build a peaceful and just society. It reduces the problems of the world and all the human rights abuses to – if you can see the humanity in the Other, then we will all be happy, well-fed and all that jazz.
Recognition of Humanity.
Last weekend for Socio 203 (Researching International Migration), in line with our discussion on refugees, our professor made the class watch Hotel Rwanda. I’ve watched this film more than ten times and have memorized the critical parts in which I should close my eyes or escape to the bathroom. That night, to take my mind off school and work, I got the first book I saw in the library “The Lord of the Flies”. Big mistake. I barely reached the middle when I figured out where it was leading to. Stress. It was “Life of Pi” all over again. The next day, CNN had “Scream Bloody Murder” – and of course Mikey and I watched. The whole weekend was like the antithesis of what we’re supposed to be celebrating today.
People seen as vermin, cockroaches or worms – brutally murdered because they are different. Closer to home, Patricia Evangelista has been writing about the political killings and the abuse that students, community workers and journalists have endured – not because they aren’t seen as human – but because they are stopping someone who wants to be superhuman.
The UDHR exposed what people have known all along – but have conveniently forgotten. Sixty years later, the world is a different place – no longer rocked by World War II but definitely unstable because of the financial crisis. One would think we’re better off, and perhaps in many ways we are, but I cannot help but wonder why we have failed to learn the simple lesson of recognizing the humanity of the other? Genocides happening in our lifetime – it’s just plain wild. Perhaps calloused by the gruesome images of war and hunger that are perpetually being shown on the news, people turn a blind eye. It’s somebody else’s life, somebody else’s problem. Human rights has once again become a domestic affair. My rights. My life. My freedom. If it does not encroach on my liberty, then we’re good.
And this brings us to my last point – because I really should start doing statistics problems – I hate how human rights has become all about “me”. It has taken Isaiah Berlin’s “Freedom to” and Freedom from” way too seriously. When the UDHR was drafted, the concern of the bigwig states was really one of security – the “smaller” countries (Latin America and yes, the Philippines, represented by Carlos P. Romulo) made their voices heard and the concept of social justice was thrown in the ring. This obsession with we should be free to do whatever we want is a dangerous thing and counters the freedom which I believe is the true spirit behind the UDHR.
I believe that the inherent dignity that is talked about, and which is constantly being used and abused by people who want some piece of legislation passed, is really talking about freedom. What sets us apart from other living beings is this freedom and consciousness in everything that we do. There is this recognition of what is right and what is wrong and what we know is rightfully ours as people – and this is conveniently listed in the UDHR.
The UDHR is a morally binding document – and although I can pretend that it is because moral fiber ought to be stronger than mere legalities – I have to admit that it is because of practicality that our beloved document made it through with the votes. But I guess it is better that way (and well, we have our own national legislation supposedly keeping people in place or in jail). The UDHR with its beautifully articulated rights is really a painful reminder that Men, though free to choose to do what is right, have continued to choose otherwise. And to those who are disturbed – then good, you are not yet jaded by the happenings in our world. The next question is – what will you do with that moral burden?
Me – I will study for statistics.