Why is it so hard to identify rights that are truly truly universal?
It is possible that there is no such thing as rights that are Universal. Rights usually have a cultural context. Philosophers have thought, spoken and written about human rights for thousands of years, but it is only in comparative recent years that these rights have been codified. Since the Second World War the major document embodying aspirations on human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The murder of millions of civilians by the Germans was the obvious motivation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However the Declaration went much further than expressing a right to life, liberty and property, as set out, for instance, by the seventeenth century philosopher, John Locke. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out 30 articles containing human rights. This was a much more ambitious attempt at codifying rights than Locke who confined himself to life liberty and property.
Locke, for his inalienable rights, relied on two factors, the existence of god and a concept of a social contract. He relied on god to bestow what he termed natural rights and he relied on the concept of a social contract to explain why people obeyed a sovereign. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not based on the rights being bestowed by god, but it says the rights are inalienable. The document does not explain why the rights are inalienable but it seems, the same as Locke, the authors presumed the rights are bestowed at birth. Article 1 seems to confirm this presumption. Although Locke used the concept of a social contract to incorporate his three rights into the local law, the United Nations can claim no such contract. The United Nations as a collective is composed of separate sovereign states and apart from treaty obligations the United Nations can’t impose its concept of human rights on member nations. Even if human rights don’t exist outside their own legal boundaries, within a country they can be found to exist by virtue of the domestic law. In other words, in Australia, we can rely on the existence of some human rights because our legal system gives it to us. This notion of rights accruing because of society not because the rights have a separate existence is the position of many modern philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham (reputed to be the founder of utilitarianism).
The problem for the United Nations is that the nations are not necessarily united and certainly not united in their approach to human rights. Also the 30 articles are just assertions and have no legal force until adopted by each nation who wishes to be bound by it.
One test for the universality of human rights is to see how human rights declarations in the past have stopped abuses and atrocities. The modern history of human rights declarations can be traced back to the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776. This declaration stated that, “ all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776 The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
In 1789 the French adopted what is called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.. “The French people, convinced that forgetfulness and contempts of the natural rights of man are the sole causes of the miseries of the world, have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration these sacred and inalienable rights,” http://www.columbia.edu/~iw6/docs/dec1793.html
Prior to World War One, apart from the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions there was little or no attempt to codify and protect human rights. After the first world war the League of Nations Charter contained some references to human rights. After World War One the League of Nations was established in 1919 its charter contained human rights.
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