Seven decades after its proclamation, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still being hailed as “a great triumph achieved at a tremendous cost,” in the words of St John Paul II.
The landmark declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris Dec. 10, 1948. It includes a preamble and 30 articles that provide for individual freedoms, denounce torture and slavery, and affirm the equal dignity of all people.
The Vatican’s diplomatic representative to the United Nations recently praised the declaration, saying the anniversary presented an opportunity to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,” but also warned that parts of the world are experiencing the consequences of failing to uphold those rights.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, offered his reflections at a Dec. 4 conference commemorating the document’s 70th anniversary.
Since Auza was in Katowice, Poland for another conference, his remarks were read by Msgr. Tomasz Grysa. The conference was jointly hosted by the Holy See and Alliance Defending Freedom International at the UN headquarters in New York.
He said the then-recent atrocities of the Holocaust and two World Wars had “revealed that there are some actions so wicked that no one can or will justify them, and certain fundamental values that no one will dispute.”
Archbishop Auza hearkened back to St. John Paul II’s praise for the declaration, which he offered a year after being elected Bishop of Rome.
“When Pope John Paul II spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1979, he called [the declaration] the 'fundamental document,' the 'basic inspiration and cornerstone of the United Nations Organization,' and a 'milestone on the long and difficult path of the moral progress,'” Auza wrote.
“After the horrors of the first half of [the 20th] century, it was obvious that human progress could not be measured only by scientific and technological advances, since even those could become weapons against the innocent,” Auza wrote, affirming that “human progress” includes ethical development as well.
Auza noted that the preamble of the UN charter affirms “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,” but does not specify what rights are to be upheld. The Commission on Human Rights later elaborated both political and civil human rights in the declaration, making them “practical” so as to guide action.
“[The rights] were framed not only in relation to the State but also to various mediating institutes like the family, human community, and religious groups, since human beings are persons in solidarity and fraternity rather than isolated individuals,” Auza wrote.
The original declaration itself did not contain any enforcement mechanisms per se, but later agreements such as the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sought to incorporate human rights principles into the legal systems of individual nations. The United States ratified that covenant in 1992.
On the occasion of the declaration’s 70th anniversary, Azua highlighted three of the document’s “fundamental presuppositions” that he said “are perhaps not as widely and deeply appreciated today as they were by the framers and the delegates who voted for its adoption” because of cultural changes since the 1940s.
He spoke of the document’s universality, which he characterized as an attempt to formulate rights that would be valid regardless of time, place, and culture, which presumes that there exist universal human rights rooted in human nature. This ties into the document’s objectivity, Azua said; if human nature is objectively the same everywhere, then this prevents the universality of the rights “to be denied for cultural, political, social, philosophical or religious reasons.”
“Human rights are premised on the existence of a nature objectively shared by all members of the human race by the very fact of their humanity,” the archbishop wrote.
“From that nature flows human dignity, which refers to the intrinsic worth of the person, no matter one’s circumstances, no matter how young or old, rich or poor, strong or vulnerable, healthy or sick, wanted or undesired, economically productive or incapacitated, politically influential or insignificant.”
In other words, this recognition presupposes that all human beings are equal in value.
Finally, Auza highlighted the unity of the declaration— the importance of applying all the rights listed, rather than picking and choosing which rights to honor “piecemeal, according to trends or selective choices”— as an important element that was highlighted by Benedict XVI in 2008.
“The Declaration, [Pope Benedict] was saying, is not, and cannot be allowed to become, a menu of rights from which one can choose according to personal, national, or international taste,” Auza wrote.
To this point, Auza highlighted some of the notable instances of human rights violations in the world today.
For example, an estimated one in ten children will be subjected to child labor, and “tens of millions are ensnared by various forms of so-called modern slavery.”
Article 18 of the declaration upholds the freedom of “thought, conscience, and religion,” but “in so many places changing one’s religion or even practising one’s faith is still a death sentence or a reason to be discriminated against.”
Many countries, such as Sudan, have laws that criminalize apostasy, or converting from the state religion, usually Islam.
Auza noted that Pope Francis has spoken out against the reinterpretation of some rights over the years that conflict with each other, leading to, among others things, a breakdown of the family.
“Human rights in general, and the Universal Declaration in particular, were not meant to be used as weapons to advance political, economic, military or cultural agendas contrary to the fundamental human rights,” he wrote.