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Maintaining the UN's moral gold standard

  • 10 December 2008

Today we mark the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Reflecting on the anniversary earlier this year, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney observed:

'Since it was framed, the Declaration has succeeded in creating an international moral consensus. It is always there as a means of highlighting abuse if not always as a remedy: it exists instead in the moral imagination as an equivalent of the gold standard in the monetary system.

'The articulation of its tenets has made them into world currency of a negotiable sort. Even if its Articles are ignored or flouted — in many cases by governments who have signed up to them — it provides a worldwide amplification system for the "still, small voice".'

Nowadays it is fashionable to postulate that the Declaration was a peculiarly western, individualistic conception, emphasising rights rather than responsibilities. It was not. Though Eleanor Roosevelt and Australia's H. V. Evatt oversaw the declaration's passage, Frenchman René Cassin, Chilean Hernan Santa Cruz, Christian Lebanese Adam Malik and Chinese Confucian Peng-chun Chang also contributed to this truly international undertaking.

Early in the drafting process, they consulted religious and philosophical greats such as Teilhard de Chardin and Mahatma Gandhi. Even Aldous Huxley made a contribution. It was the Jesuit palaeontologist Teilhard who counselled that the drafters should focus on 'man in society' rather than man as an individual.

The drafters knew any catalogue of rights would need to include words of limitation. Article 29 of the Declaration speaks not just of rights and freedoms, but also of duties, morality, public order and the general welfare:

In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

So from the outset, the declaration envisaged that individual rights could be limited not just by the individual rights of others, but for the preservation of public order and for the general welfare of persons in a democratic society, and also for morality — presumably to maintain, support, enhance or develop morality in a democratic society. Sixty years later, these limitations are often overlooked.

Two years after the declaration was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly, the Council of Europe