The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the next sixty years

Conor Gearty
10 December 2008

There is much natural jubilation over the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is celebrating its sixtieth birthday in 10 December 2008. At one level, it is indeed right to observe that we live in an "age of human rights": the United Nations has been emphatic throughout its existence that human rights is at the very core of its global mission while the nation-states, particularly since the end of the cold war in 1989, have also been vying with each other for ways in which to create better structures of human rights protection for their peoples.

Conor Gearty is the director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics. Among his books are Civil Liberties (Oxford University Press, 2008) and Essays on Human Rights and Terrorism(Cameron May, 2008). His forthcoming books are on Liberty and Security (Polity) and Social Rights (Hart). His website is conorgearty.co.uk

This article draws on a lecture entitled "Human Rights: Social Justice in a Post-Socialist Age", at the launch of the Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars Priory, Oxford on 25 November 2008But on another level, the raw data on the absence of human flourishing in the world today - the poverty; the growth in inequality; the stuttering implementation of the UN's Millennium Development Goals - tells a different story: that this proclamation of human rights represents so much empty noise. This landscape of deprivation makes it seem indeed an ethical cover for the selfishness of the rich, a way of their being able to support continuing systemic injustice while persuading themselves that they are also moral beings, persons of ethics as well as of excess.

This birthday celebration should therefore also be an occasion for critical reflection. This means asking what human rights are for; but it also requires us to pose in the first instance an even more basic question: what is the foundation for our claim that they exist?

The UDHR itself evades the issue of origins. This is no longer feasible. To continue with such a complacent approach, and assume that mere assertion is a form of argument, carries the real risk that the idea of human rights will not survive its next sixty years - or that if it does, it will have been diluted out of all recognition by the pressures of national security, environmental anxiety and economic despair that are already beginning to engulf the subject. In this perspective, human rights is like the badly-built house of a much-loved but aging relative - it has been a shelter for as long as anyone can remember, but now the lack of deep foundations is finally hitting home: the walls are crumbling, cracks are appearing, there is a leak in the roof, things are not as they were.

The claims of dignity

Any reconstruction of the original claim that human rights exist must start with a fresh look at human dignity, the religious concept that the drafters of the declaration took and put to good secular use. The term needs careful reworking if it is going to be effective today - as opposed to remaining the vacuous generality that it often seems to be.

The origins of the idea that each of us is entitled to respect, to be esteemed by others simply in view of our humanity, lie deep in human nature. There is in all of us an instinct for hospitality, for cooperation, for outreach to the stranger. True, it is not the only instinct that we have, and there are others that might run counter to it (for the safety/survival of our own family/community members, or for loyalty to our group, for example). But it is there as a constant feature of human conduct since the first interactions of the species. Whether the instinct thrives or fails depends on the social soil in which its bearers find themselves growing. If the social institutions they inherit are weak and fragile, if their world is a place of insecurity, violence and disorder, then the instinct will manifest itself as only a dim echo of what, in better times, it might have been.

More normal is the situation across history and across cultures, where our various instincts can be in tension with each other. We are inclined to hospitality, but also to loyalty; to reach out to the stranger one minute but to pull up the drawbridge the next. Something in us knows this to be the case and knows also that the instinct for self/kin-preservation is a strong one, whereas that of solicitude for the outsider is in contrast relatively weak. So to keep our selfish instinct in some kind of check, ideas of unselfishness have both emerged in the minds of quixotic idealists and taken root, in the form of structures of governance and of behaviour that have been influential in the conduct of life generally.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on the theme of human rights:

Mary Robinson, "Making 'global' and 'ethical' rhyme: an interview" (9 December 2003)

Robert Walgate, Irene Khan, "The United Nations and human rights: the danger of irrelevance" (18 March 2004)

Shirin Ebadi, "A single family" (16 June 2004)

Stephen Bowen, "'Full-spectrum' human rights: Amnesty International rethinks" (2 June 2005)

Shashi Tharoor, "A United Nations for a fairer, safer world" (14 September 2005)

Isabel Hilton, Luis Afonso de Alba, "Rethinking human rights" (1 February 2007)On this analysis, the consistent interest in human dignity shown by many of the world¹s large religions is not necessarily a consequence of some great truth delivered from on high (though it might be); but nor is it inevitably an exercise in bad faith, mocked by the actual conduct of the leaders of such faith groups. Instead, for those among us unable to embrace the faith-explanation, such concern for dignity can be respected, admired even, as an effort to put into words and to structure a response to the instinct for hospitality that is in us all, prior to (and perhaps independently of) faith.

And because it is generally the poor and unlucky, the neglected and hard-pressed who need us to see them, the project of human-rights promotion becomes in practice one committed to a preference for the disempowered and disadvantaged among human beings. This is what human rights, properly understood, are for.

The embedding of instinct

Such an approach allows not only critical engagement with rival instincts but also with how the instincts play out in the structures of solidarity themselves. We can see clearly that just as religious movements can abuse the idea of human rights by turning it into a set of perks available only to believers (and perhaps even only male believers), so too can human-rights organisations stray from the path of true human dignity by using their ethical cachet to trap volunteers into poor working conditions or by allowing their sense of moral superiority to blind them to the bullying employment culture that has been allowed to take root behind the scenes.

An equally blatant disjunction is the use made of the term "human rights" to underpin the values of a particular civilisation. This contradiction in terms has the effect of allowing the coercion of suspects and the lawless invasion of states in the name of a universalism that has shed its engagement with the dignity of the individual and in so doing has become incoherently partisan.

It is true that academics tend to be disdainful about reliance on instincts about human nature. They see in such use of intuition little more than a lazy shortcut to conclusions that do no more than reflect back the received orthodoxies of the day, ideas so entrenched in culture that everybody supposes them to be natural. But as Aristotle knew and even the contract-theorists acknowledge, every thought has to start somewhere within the mind marked "new idea": the point is not that this is where we start but is rather how we use our first thought, how we interrogate it, investigate it, deepen it and seek to make it work. This will reveal whether we are merely engaged in a circulatory echo of our cultural conventions or whether we are indeed on a path that leads beyond our present.

The establishment of a foundational basis for our subject which is not limited to the religious, but to which progressive elements within religious movements can subscribe, is an essential project if human rights is to enjoy a further sixty years of institutional and activist growth. It is also vital if the critics in the academy are to be successfully tempted to join. The legacy of the wrongs done and being done by faith groups still makes even progressive religion impossible for many. As long as this remains the case, then human rights with its confident commitment to a dignity rooted in human instinct and unfolded through embedded social practices offers as good a guide to secular salvation as we are likely to find.


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