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The Declaration of Human Rights?

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 20 October 2020

In a few weeks we will pass the moment where, in 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It had earlier been announced by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his fourth term as President of the United States of America. No subsequent President has served for more than two terms, because a constitutional change limited later presidents to a maximum of two terms. Eleanor Roosevelt was an important woman of her time, and we have just passed the anniversary of the moment where she declared the Declaration was coming.

The Declaration has special significance. It was written at the end of the Second World War, and is imbued with the triumphal tone of victory and 'This should never happen again…'. Nothing like it had appeared before, and it is the foundation of the UN's stance as the decider of world rules. We need to understand it for that reason. I've written about 'human rights' before, and so I do so here because I didn't then talk about the Declaration at all. So here goes. The Declaration has a long Preamble, with lots of statements beginning with 'Whereas…' (UN statements are like this), followed by 30 articles. The first Preamble sets the spirit for the rest: Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

There are six more, and the last two are as follows: Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,


Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,…

The first Article goes like this: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

And the second, longer, like this: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

You will recognise some of this aspirational language. It is what we hear all the time from the human rights people, not only those in the UN agencies, like UNHCR, but those in Australia who see 'rights' as the beginning of everything that is important in our society. As a member of the UN Australia has 'pledged' itself to achieve these outcomes. Most of the rest of the Articles are indeed familiar, and are the foundation of our laws and our society. They are much older than the Declaration. Some are intriguing. Article 16(3) says:The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State. Article 17(1) says that: Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. Article 26(3) enjoins that: Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

At the end comes the quid quo pro of all these rights, the responsibilities. Article 29(1) tells us that: Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. These duties are not spelled out at all, and of course they can be in conflict with the other Articles. Parents' rights to set out how their children are to be educated can be in conflict with the state's decisions about how education is to be carried out. I think Article 29(1) provides the wriggle room that would have allowed delegates to agree on the rest.

How successful have we in Australia been with all this? We should get a Credit or two, I think. Seventy-two years have passed since the Declaration was voted in and there's nothing in the Articles where we deserve a Fail. It all depends on 'How much?' How much 'life, liberty and security of person' do we all have (Article 3)? It depends on what you think about freedom of association and our capacity to gather to protest about things when the state has ruled that there is a medical crisis and has banned gatherings for that reason. But we are a civilised society, and I think our scores are improving, not declining.


For these reasons Australia scores pretty well on other measures of democracy, quality of life and freedom. The rest of the world? The Western democracies are like us. The USA is a problem, because of its high homicide rate. The Asian tigers are doing well, the poor countries are struggling. Russia, China and the former socialist countries, plus the poor countries too, are doing better than they were, but they have a way to go. How much of this is due to the Declaration? Some, certainly. The UN took it seriously, and we all take the UN sort of seriously. The Declaration provided a list of aims that all nations should aspire to. Incidentally the Articles make clear that the 'nation' is a really important aspect of the pledges. Who else is to ensure that the pledges are honoured?

More praise is due, I think, to the extraordinary scientific and technological advances of the past seventy years. That advance was caused by the intense scientific and technological endeavour that took place during and after the war, the economic growth that occurred after the war, and the entrepreneurial spirit that has developed in the intervening years to the present. The culture of the Western developed countries is vastly more enquiring and gung-ho in technology than was the case a century ago, and we all benefit from that shift.

So while I give the Declaration and its Articles a Credit for setting out what the aim of a civilised society ought to be, I think that its implementation would have been much slower had it not been for the advances in science, technology and wealth that have occurred. In short, what the societies were already doing and continued to do allowed the realisation of the Declaration's intent. It was not the other way round, I think.

Another essay altogether could be written about the difficulties of implementation, but I've already done a few of those!

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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