Monday, November 15, 2010

Universal Principles

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
—Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
United Nations, December 10, 1948

Eleanor Roosevelt Holding The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: On addressing the UN General Assembly after its adoption,Mrs Roosevelt said: "As we here bring to fruition our labors on this Declaration of Human Rights, we must at the same time rededicate ourselves to the unfinished task which lies before us. We can now move on with new courage and inspiration to the completion of an international covenant on human rights and of measures for the implementation of human rights.
Source: Franklin D Roosevelt Library website.


No sane and reasonable person would argue against the ideals enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which form the basis of universal principles of equality, fairness and individual dignity. Yet, it is fashionable in some quarters to bash and trash the United Nations, deeming it an organization that operates far from its original principles. The charges levied against it are many, including being corrupt, ineffective. socialist and bureaucratic.

While some of these allegations might hold some kernels of truth, Americans who have ultra-conservative views, like the John Birch Society, go further than most. In their estimation, the UN ought to move its headquarters from New York City and outside the United States, and the US ought to also withdraw its membership from the international body. The cost of maintaining the UN is another point put forth by the reformers, which might have some merit. Although it can safely and reasonably be argued that such expenditure has value beyond the dollars and cents on an accounting ledger.

Of the two arguments, I would like to examine the former. What would happen if that wound take place? Would the world be a far better place?

Unlikely so. Owing to the United States' chief role in forming and shaping its founding ideals, the United Nations would be a poorer and weaker body without the presence of the United States and its long-standing tradition of liberal democracy. More than sixty years ago, two persons stand out in this regard: Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, liberal democrats, which might explain some of the animus directed at the UN today by those with opposing views on society.

That being the case, it is worth taking a few minutes to remember and look at how the Charter of the United Nations  and its guiding Universal Principles of Human Rights were shaped and written. This is particularly important to those of us, my generation and younger, who are too young to remember its historic formation.

In the midst of the Second World War, the world's leading powers, led by the United States, drew up a Declaration at the Arcadia Conference in Washington. President Roosevelt of the U.S., Prime Minister Churchill of the U.K.,  Maxim Litvinov, of the USSR, and T. V. Soong, of China signed a short document, on January 1, 1942, which later came to be known as the United Nations Declaration.

The next day representatives of twenty-two other nations added their signatures. This important document pledged the signatory governments to the maximum war effort and bound them against making a separate peace. This document would later become the blueprint for the formation of the modern United Nations, we read in History of the United Nations:
The name "United Nations," coined by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was first used in the "Declaration by United Nations" of 1 January 1942, during the Second World War, when representatives of 26 nations pledged their governments to continue fighting together against the Axis Powers.
After the Second World War ended, with between 50 million and 70 million deaths, it became the deadliest war in history. The need for a world body to discuss and talk face to face was given greater urgency. That being the case, the United Nations officially came into existence quickly after the war's end, on October 24, 1945, after the Charter was ratified by China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and a majority of other signatories. Accordingly, United Nations Day is celebrated on October 24th each year.

The Charter's Universal Appeal

The Charter's Universal Principles are found in its Preamble, similar in sentiment to the United States Constitution: 
We The Peoples Of The United Nations Determine:
  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to regain faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
And For These Ends
  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
Have Resolved To Combine Our Efforts To Accomplish These Aims
Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.
No doubt, it is easy to criticize an organization that has as its mandate such an ideal as to bring about peace and cooperation among the world's various nations, cultures and peoples. It is idealism in its purest form. Yet, it's a necessary idealism, notably if we really want peace in the world. We tend to forget the cost of war, not only in monetary terms, but more important in human lives, wrecked potential and destruction of hope.

Human Rights Protected

And it was Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a formidable person in her own right, who worked tireless on gaining passage on December 10, 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, strengthening the values contained in the Charter:
Eleanor Roosevelt’s concern for humanity made her the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her leadership of the Commission on Human Rights led to the composition of a Declaration that has endured as a universally accepted standard of achievement for all nations. As our respect for and understanding of the Universal Declaration has grown, so too has our gratitude and admiration for this modest woman who passionately pursued what she imagined would become a cornerstone in the struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms for everyone - everywhere.
Remember the maxim: Universal principles like human rights, freedom, equality, and individual dignity are morally superior to man-made rules and laws. The principles themselves are not questionable. They are ideal and noble, among the best protections against tyranny and the erosion of human dignity. Although they might be imperfectly applied, it is not the fault of the documents or the Universal Principles they advocate. The fault lies within ourselves and our human imperfections.

I wonder at the reasons of the people who attack the United Nations, if the attacks are really noble, or otherwise. Is it that some are against the Universal Principles, or is it something else all-together? It might be easy and fashionable in some quarters to mock such noble idealism, especially among some who really do not want to accommodate other ideas, nations or peoples Or among those who think and view the world with steely pragmatism and utilitarianism. We can see what pragmatism and real-politic generally leads to: Misery, Cruelty, InHumanity.

Despite its many real and imagined problems, the United Nations remains the best hope for us, even in its weakened state. If the United Nations could prevent even one war, its mandate has been achieved. What other alternative is there? I am reminded of the famous words of Winston Churchill, former British prime minister and a great wartime leader: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."

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