“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.” It is the belief that guided the Mission of the Holy See at the UN in New York in the debate that inaugurated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Panel speakers underlined the challenges and the risks that the human rights listed in the Declaration’s 30 Articles are constantly exposed to, especially when the interested parties seek to adjust them to their goals, regardless of the consequences. The keynote address of the Apostolic nuncio Msgr. Bernardito Auza, attending the Conference on Climate, read by his deputy Msgr. Grysa, highlights three of the fundamental presuppositions of the Declaration, which face major challenges today. These are: universality, objectivity and unity.
“This universality has been challenged by those who have argued that the Declaration is excessively the fruit of western ideas, or by those who think that all truth, including ethical, is relative to context, or by governments or groups who want to violate others’ rights”, declared Mons. Auza.
Objectivity is undermined by subjectivistic or relativistic understandings that “accentuate the word ‘rights’ while neglecting the even more important word human, but 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.”Finally, the unity of the rights “cannot be allowed to become a menu of rights from which one can choose according to personal, national, or international taste” because, argues the Holy See Mission, “once some rights become optional, every right does.”
Concerns on the future of the Declaration were conveyed by Michael Farris, president and CEO of the Alliance Defending Freedom and ADF International. Farris underlined the attempt to create new rights in the Declaration that “are incompatible with the original” foundational ones, which would weaken it at international level. As an example he mentioned the recent approval of a comment to Art.6 on the right to life that seeks to establish a right to abortion and euthanasia. It was remembered that in 2014 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child ruled that the right to life could not be applied to the unborn and asked the Holy See to amend Canon Law on abortion “with a view to identity circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.”
The former US Ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Anne Glendon, retraced the historical roots and circumstances that led to the creation of the Declaration, while “not being legally binding”, she said, “its ethical and moral bearing successfully challenged the view that sovereignty provided an iron shield behind which states could mistreat their people without outside scrutiny.” Glendon praised the framers of this architecture of values explaining that while many questions on the human rights project are yet unanswered, the principles of universality which everyone can identify with remain valid, although this did not mean homogeneity, for different cultures ascribe different values to rights. Subsidiarity principles require community discernment in the adoption of human rights at many different levels, and thus citizens are directly responsible inasmuch as they are the main actors of the laws and institutions by which they are governed.
The defence of the right to life and religious freedom is a crucial issue highlighted by Robert George, Law Professor at Princeton, Director of academic Programs in American Ideals and Institutions. “Religion is a fundamental aspect of human fulfilment and it must be considered a fundamental human right – George pointed out -.
The right relationship with God implied in a religion allows the involved persons to give a direction to their own lives and to participate in a community that shares those values. A religion is free when it entails the respect of the person and thus is it a right to be protected also from a rational perspective.” Professor George mentioned Martin Luther King as an example of a person who rebelled against unfair laws on the basis of his religious tenets which those laws infringed.
“Who guards the guardians of human rights?”. “Has the institutionalization of human rights with bodies and agencies been successful or has it made their commitment irrelevant thus causing a rift with the people?” These questions were raised by Paolo Carozza, director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, who raised awareness on the “dark side” and the limits of institutions tasked with ensuring the implementation of human rights, sometimes “mired in processes that are remotely representative of the vastness of societies or dominated by a small number of ideologically oriented groups or by the permanent bureaucracy of established bodies.” Carozza proposed a set of solutions that focus on strengthening the rule of law at national level, democracy and institutions; the need for pluralism, the unconditional transparency and fundamental role of the political realm because “while politics will not save us, without politics there can be no common life”, and populist movements could have the last word.