“Do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you”
On the 10th of December 1948 the General Assembly adopted the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in order to let know the world that every human being has some rights which are inalienable, irrespective of their “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Art. 2).
Today, 66 years later, we cannot say that rights enshrined in this document, called also the “Magna Charta for all humanity”, are a reality everywhere in the world. What we can affirm is that we have made a long way since 1948. Today there are plenty of international treaties, declarations, conventions, international and regional courts and tribunals which have given life to a wide culture of human rights. Among these instruments we shall remember the 1966 two International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights and the 1984 Convention against Torture. At regional level we have the European Convention of Human Rights in Europe but there are similar systems also in other areas, such as Africa and America. These instruments and regimes have been implemented at national level by the majority of States, although there is still much to do, since States are free to decide whether or not to be part of them.
It is difficult to talk about achievements reached in this field now, when revelations on torture committed by the CIA have shaken the public opinion and when human rights are systematically violated in many areas of the world. Furthermore, universality of human rights is being challenged by the theory of cultural relativism which considers that human rights are different from society to society. Hence there are States and religious groups which refuse to comply with international standards because they claim that these are only a product of western culture and individualism while they prefer to apply a different view of human rights according to which individual interest is second to the interest of the community.
Considering these huge challenges, can we still consider that the doctrine of human rights is universal?
I think the only possible answer is YES. Probably there are people who disagree with me but it is their right to do so. The truth is that no person likes or desires to be deprived of its life, to be held in slavery, to be tortured or raped, to be discriminated, to suffer from starvation or live in bad health and without access to education or to be reduced in silence and be deprived of the right to choose. This is a constant characteristic of all human beings and these are rights envisaged by the Universal Declaration.
Of course there are limitations required in some cases but still there are some rights which should not be negotiable, no matter what. Culture is important, we all born and live in our societies which differ from the each other. Difference is envisaged by the doctrine of human rights but we cannot let it become the excuse for gross violations of the very same rights we seek to protect.
Cultural relativism is not a negative concept, it becomes so when it is used by those who want to continue exercising their power over other people by the means of fear, threat and oppression. If the culture of human rights is not universal and has nothing to do with their people and societies, then why are they so afraid of it? Why do they fight it so hardly? Why do they do everything to prevent their people from entering in contact with these ideas? The answer is that they fear that people can realise that their desire to live free from oppression and persecution is absolutely natural and embedded into every human being.
What has changed now is the existence of the public opinion at international, transnational and national levels which acts according to this culture of human rights and which will not accept to remain silent when violations occur. If people come together from different corners of the Earth and condemn these violations, with no one pushing them to do so and with no personal benefit, than this is clearly a sing that human rights not only exist but they are universal.
We have many reasons to celebrate today, if we think about past atrocities, but we also have to continue working towards the respect of human rights worldwide, not because we want to “export democracy”, but because we feel that victims have the right to put and end to their situation of oppression, persecution and discrimination.
(Ana Daniela Sanda)
To know more:
Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights UN http://legal.un.org/avl/ha/icescr/icescr.html
UN Convention against Torture http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.htmlEuropean Convention of Human Rights of the Council of Europe http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf