The National, Friday 16th December 2011
DECEMBER 10 marked the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (UDHR).
The first Article of the Declaration contains the stirring proclamation that “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”.
Many important moral ideals can be derived from this simple but eloquent statement.
Universality: All human beings are entitled to some core
human rights. These rights transcend time, territory, race, religion, colour, caste, creed, gender or nationality.
Human rights represent universal standards for evaluating national laws and institutions.
Born free: Human rights are inherent. They belong to us by virtue of our birth as a human being.
They do not depend on the existence of a state or a constitution. They enjoy authority superior to and independent of government.
Fundamental rights are individual as well as collective in their nature. They belong to human beings as individuals as well as to nations and human groups as collective entities.
Human rights are essential conditions for a free and democratic society.
They are principles of liberty and justice without which a fair and enlightened system of government would be impossible.
Equality: Though inequalities are a fact of life, the law must hitch itself to stars. It must peg its provisions to ideals distilled from philosophy and morality.
The law must ban religious, racial, tribal and gender discrimination and call for equality before the law and equal protection of the law.
Indeed, over the last few centuries, the struggle for equality has reached many important milestones.
Religious persecution has been outlawed. Racial discrimination has collapsed in South Africa and the United States. Many strides have been made in gender equality.
However, other goals still beckon. Poverty is pervasive and remains the biggest threat to human dignity.
In the area of employment and work, hierarchies exist and glaring income disparities are widespread. Globalisation is creating vast disparities between the rich North and the impoverished South.
Colonialism, built on a racist assumption of the superiority of some people over others, rears its ugly head again.
Rights and dignities: The UDHR talks of “dignity” and “rights”. Both are important but it is necessary to distinguish between the two.
A right is a legitimate authority to be, to do or to have. Most rights are necessary and supportable. But the exercise or abuse of some rights may be incompatible with the preservation of human dignity.
For instance, if a person by his/her own volition chooses to lead the life of a beggar and to sleep on the pavements or to become a sex worker, that may be his/her right. But it diminishes the worth and dignity of the human personality. For this reason many philosophers emphasise that dignity is more important than rights.
The notion of dignity implies that an individual owes a duty to himself not to compromise his self-esteem and destroy his worth.
Right to dignity also requires that the state must take vigorous affirmative action to preserve human dignity by eradicating poverty, starvation and illiteracy.
The state must be actively involved in efforts to stamp out all legal, social, economic and cultural conditions (like caste system, female circumcision) that destroy human dignity.
Thus, slaves, sex workers, circus dwarfs, and surrogate mothers can be restrained by the law from sacrificing their dignity even if they have a personal right to compromise their rights.
Reason and conscience: In the pursuit of our rights and our vision of a good life, we must maintain a sense of balance, moderation and equilibrium.
We must avoid the temptation to conform to non-conformity.
We must know when to say “no” to drugs, cigarettes, free sex and advertisements which tempt us to shop till we drop in an excessively consumerist society.
Rights must be exercised with responsibility. Responsibility is the inevitable consequence of freedom.
We must accept the limitations of our freedom.
Freedom is not an end in itself. Freedom per se has no value. It is what freedom is for. It is the use to which it is put and the sense of responsibility with which it is exercised.
If liberty is exercised without concern for the consequences to oneself and to society, then the line between liberty and anarchy is crossed.
People are not always right about the exercise of their rights.
Rights must go hand in hand with duties. Free speech, for example, carries with it a duty to listen.
Our personal rights carry with them duties to oneself, to one’s family, to one’s community, to one’s country and to the larger world we inhabit.
Everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefits received.
Unfortunately, too often duty is seen as the thing we expect from others.
Brotherhood: We should treat all other human beings as our brothers. We should give a little bit of ourselves, our time, talent and resources to others. We have a moral duty to help those less fortunate than us.
We should do to others what we wish to be done to us. In all areas of discord, we should put ourselves in the shoes of others, identify with their pain and problems and try to see issues through their eyes.
To be truly objective, we should be prepared to be subjective from another person’s point of view.
We should look for the best in others. We should avoid stereotypes and shun extremism. Extremism reflects awareness of only one narrow perspective.
The first function of freedom should be to free somebody else. We should protect and cherish not only our rights but the rights of others.
Regrettably this is not what happens around the world.
Decent human beings must stand up and be counted and struggle to throw off the chains that bind their fellow beings.
When that happens, when a just cause reaches its floodtide, whatever stands in the way falls before its overwhelming force.
There is in this world no such force as the force of a human being determined to rise.
The human soul cannot be permanently chained.
This is the lesson of history and the implicit message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
lShad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at the Mara University of Technology and visiting professor at the Malaysian University of Science.