The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Fifty Years Later: A Statement of the Ramsey Colloquium

First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, April 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Fifty Years Later: A Statement of the Ramsey Colloquium


Fifty years ago, on December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration marked a decisive moment in the moral, cultural and political history of the world. It gave powerful testimony to a widespread longing for freedom, justice, peace, and solidarity. Affirming the dignity of the human person, it specified and sought to secure certain freedoms and rights as essential to the protection of that dignity. The Preamble calls the Declaration "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations," and as such the Declaration is itself one of the signal achievements of the modern world.

Written in the aftermath of World War II and the horrors that attended that conflict, the document was a response to the "barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." The subsequent fifty years have not been lacking in barbarous acts that outrage the conscience of mankind. In 1948, one form of totalitarianism had been defeated, but other threats to the idea of human rights remained, generating confusions in the understanding and application of the Declaration. Such confusions were exacerbated by the presence among the victorious powers of another totalitarian system. After the demise of Soviet Communism in 1989-91, it was hoped that the Universal Declaration might be universally affirmed with greater clarity and persuasive force. That has not happened. Instead, the end of the Cold War has witnessed other distortions in the understanding of human rights.

We must frankly recognize that, in both theory and practice, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is today under attack. The very idea of universal human rights is challenged from several directions, and must therefore be given a more secure grounding in religious, philosophical, and moral reason. As believing Christians and Jews, our purpose is to help provide such a grounding in a way that is faithful both to the text of the Declaration and to the intentions of its authors. We readily acknowledge that ours is not the only way of understanding the Declaration. We believe that it is a way that invites firm adherence to the Declaration by Christians and Jews, and we hope it will be convincing to many others as well.

While both biblical faith and the philosophical tradition of natural law offer profound illuminations, we welcome diverse ways of affirming the universality of human rights. Every constructive analysis will aim at strengthening the Declaration as an instrument for the defense of human rights by providing a coherent and integrated interpretation that protects the document from the distortions to which it has too often been subjected.

The Dignity of the Human Person

Attacks on what we would call the human rights project take several forms. They all end up by denying, implicitly or explicitly, the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. Alluding to the Charter of the United Nations, the Declaration says that the nations have "reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom" (Preamble). The keystone of this reaffirmation is the dignity of the human person.

In ancient and still continuing practices such as torture and slavery, the human person is subordinated to economic, political, or other ends. Respect for human dignity is also made contingent upon distinctions "such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status" (Article 2). Today, human beings are increasingly ranked by a "quality of life" index, and some lives are deemed not worth living (the contemporary equivalent of the Nazi lebensunwertes Leben--life unworthy of life). This degrading of human lives is evident in proposals for coercive population control, as well as in the return of eugenics in various manipulations of human reproduction.

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Fifty Years Later: A Statement of the Ramsey Colloquium
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