UNITED NATIONS — Seventy years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon says it’s a reminder that “a few good men and women at crucial moments in history can and do make a difference.”
At a panel discussion sponsored by the Holy See Mission at the United Nations and Alliance Defending Freedom at the United Nations on Tuesday, Glendon was joined by legal scholars, historians, and activists to survey the ways in which the landmark document, which enumerates 30 fundamental human rights, has served as the backbone for the international community.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the pope’s representative to the U.N., said — through written remarks delivered by his deputy, Monsignor Tomasz Grysa — that the document’s anniversary was an occasion to “celebrate it as one of the great achievements in the history of the United Nations,” reaffirming “its importance … and defending the rights, fundamental freedoms and responsibilities it articulates.”
Auza is currently in Poland taking part in the Holy See’s delegation to the Conference of the Parties (COP24) conference on climate change.
He went on to highlight three specific features of the declaration that has contributed to its influence and effectiveness: its universality, its objectivity, and its unity.
The framers of the document sought to “formulate rights that would be valid in every age, place, and culture,” he recalled, giving it universal value.
Further, he noted that the rights enumerated were evident through rational reflection, giving them an objective nature, and all linked together in a unifying manner because “once some rights become optional, every right does.”
Glendon, whose 2001 book, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, widely considered one of the definitive histories of the document, recalled the uphill battle smaller nations faced when trying to convince major powers of the need to embrace human rights.
While many scholars were skeptical that the declaration would have any real teeth, given that at the time there were no instruments for enforcement, Glendon argued that “it successfully challenged the view that sovereignty provided an iron shield behind which states could mistreat their people without outside scrutiny,” and said that alone was an achievement of “historical proportion.”
Such a triumph, she maintained, was made possible because the founders were not “starry-eyed idealists,” but took great caution to produce an integrated document with interdependent rights.
She warned, however, that in many respects the human rights project is a “victim of its own success” and is in crisis today.
Those concerns were echoed by Princeton Professor Robert George, who lamented the “hijacking” of the human rights project by some individuals and groups, borrowing a line from the United Kingdom’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs that “the evils of any day will be justified in the dominant terms of discourse of that day.”
Unlike some, George insisted that he believes in human rights and that the idea of human rights must be fought for — beginning with understanding what’s a human good, in order to understand what’s a human right.
George zeroed in on the right to religious freedom, particularly the “robust” understanding of the concept taught by the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, to be enjoyed by “all men and women of sincerity and goodwill” and something that can be understood by “our common human reason.”
Michael Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, offered a bleak assessment of the broad state of human rights, while also stating that the United States is currently making progress, particularly on the right to life.
Farris said it was particularly “distressing” that various agencies entrusted with promoting human rights are, in his view, putting them at risk.
“UN Agencies, Special Rapporteurs, various committees, and some UN Member States are doing something dangerous. Perhaps they are trying to advance human rights as they understand them. But what they are doing is putting the entire framework of internationally recognized human rights in jeopardy.”
He specifically identified efforts by the Human Rights Committee to enshrine international rights to abortion and euthanasia under the banner of human rights.
“If we stay our current course, we may soon arrive in a future where human rights are becoming discredited and the entire system of international human rights law is sagging toward collapse,” he warned.
Concluding the panel was Paolo Carozza, director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, who dedicated his remarks to asking “Who guards the guardians?” when it comes to the protection of human rights.
“There’s a paradox that the institutionalization of human rights has been one of the singular achievements of the 70 years of human rights system, and also one of its greatest challenges and problems that it faces today,” he observed, noting that the bodies and agencies tasked with ensuring and implementing human rights can often fall prey to special interest groups and often lack accountability.
Carozza said that in order for these institutions and agencies not to become irrelevant, or even worse, “unhinged,” they must act with restraint and with respect for the common good so as not to squander the legacy on which they were built.
Building on the inheritance of 70 years ago, Glendon sought to challenge diplomats, delegates, and students by forecasting ahead.
“Seventy years from now, people not yet born will form opinions regarding the present generation’s stewardship of that legacy,” she posited. “They will pass judgment one day on whether we enhanced or squandered the inheritance handed down by … large-souled men and women who strove to bring a standard of right from the ashes of terrible wrongs.”
“How, I wonder, will we measure up?” she asked.