from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Where Do Our Rights Come From?

Clouds are reflected off the Secretariat Building (C) of the UN headquarters during the 67th United Nations General Assembly, in New York, September 24, 2012. (Courtesy REUTERS/Chip East)

October 9, 2012

Clouds are reflected off the Secretariat Building (C) of the UN headquarters during the 67th United Nations General Assembly, in New York, September 24, 2012. (Courtesy REUTERS/Chip East)
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In the last few decades, "rights talk" has become increasingly common. But what is the origin of these "rights?" Why do we have the right to freedom of speech or religion or assembly?

That is an easy question for Americans: our Declaration of Independence says

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.

The main United Nations documents, the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], are far more ambiguous, simply noting that "the peoples of the United Nations" have "reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights." (And where "the peoples" first affirmed that faith is entirely unclear.) The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is similarly vague, recognizing rights but never suggesting why they are rights and whence they came.

But the UN’s second-highest official has just given us the answer: rights come from the United Nations itself. Jan Eliasson, the Deputy Secretary General (and a former Swedish ambassador to the United States) told a press conference on October 2 that

you have this gift given to us by the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights.... So you have to have to keep in mind, yes, this is the basis for, I hope, most of the countries in the world — the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression, since this is in the Universal Declaration....

That’s a very powerful "since." It implies that if those rights were not in the UDHR-- if that "gift" had not been given us in that document-- those rights would not exist. Indeed it implies that if the UDHR were amended, or if the UN were to adopt some limitations on freedom of speech or religion, those rights would cease to exist.

Eliasson is a superb diplomat and a thoughtful, warm, and popular man, but his views here represent fully the intellectual trap into which UN bureaucrats and more importantly too many Europeans have fallen. The UN and its documents may be effective or ineffective at respecting and protecting peoples’ rights, but the UN cannot possibly be the origin of those rights-- any more than certain EU documents can. They are inherent in us as men and women, and the state or international institutions such as the UN have no right to denigrate them or take them away, or they are as shaky as a leaf or as a "gift" in the hands of bureaucrats and officials. There is of course a deeper problem here, which the secular Mr. Eliasson and the secular states of Europe cannot solve: if there is no God who endows us with rights, there really are no "rights" at all, just "gifts" the state may or may not hand us from time to time.

The Polish constitution of 1992 is an interesting effort to have it both ways:

We, the Polish Nation - all citizens of the Republic,

Both those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty,

As well as those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources,

Equal in rights and obligations towards the common good - Poland,

Beholden to our ancestors for their labours, their struggle for independence achieved at great sacrifice, for our culture rooted in the Christian heritage of the Nation and in universal human values,

Recalling the best traditions of the First and the Second Republic,

Obliged to bequeath to future generations all that is valuable from our over one thousand years’ heritage,

Bound in community with our compatriots dispersed throughout the world,

Aware of the need for cooperation with all countries for the good of the Human Family,

Mindful of the bitter experiences of the times when fundamental freedoms and human rights were violated in our Homeland,

Desiring to guarantee the rights of the citizens for all time, and to ensure diligence and efficiency in the work of public bodies,

Recognizing our responsibility before God or our own consciences,

Hereby establish this Constitution of the Republic of Poland....

God, Christianity, culture, history, experience, "universal values," "other sources"-- this 1992, post-communist constitution throws all possible sources of rights into the basket. Certainly that’s better than viewing them as a gift from the United Nations. Mr. Eliasson ought to come up with a better formulation, lest it be thought that he actually believes what he said on October 2.

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