Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confusions, Revisited

Published March 1, 1995

In all of this, there are welcome signs of progress in what Winston Churchill once called “the hard march of man.” But there is also a great paradox. For these successes “on the ground” have been paralleled by a continuing distortion of the concept of “universal and inalienable human rights” in international public life. And in that process of distortion, the United Nations has played a pernicious role for many years.

The conceptual problems go back to the first major human rights document to be born of the U.N. system, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By listing as “human rights” vast numbers of social goods whose delivery was, in some sense, a state responsibility, the Universal Declaration confused the question of social, economic, and cultural desiderata with the Anglo-American notion of a “human right” as a moral claim, inherent in the individual human being, against the coercive power of the state. But the Universal Declaration did more than confuse matters intellectually; it also tended to weaken the power of classic human rights claims. For when it put the putative “right” to, say, “periodic holidays with pay” on the same legal plane as the fundamental human right of religious freedom, it blunted the moral and political cutting edge that the assertion of inalienability had had in the West since the late eighteenth century.

Over the years, the “rights” continued to pile up in subsequent U.N. instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and such tracts for the times as the international “conventions” deploring racial discrimination and discrimination against women, and the new International Convention on the Rights of the Child. All this invited the suspicion that, if everything was a “human right,” then nothing was, in fact, a “human right” in any morally or politically serious sense of the term.

Whence this confusion?

The fact that we can trace back to the Universal Declaration the unhappy U.N. tradition of lumping together civil rights and political freedoms (i.e., what most Americans and Britons understand by “human rights”) with “economic, social, and cultural ‘rights'” reflects, in part, the tensions of the early Cold War period. One may also see in this mishmash the fine hand of Mrs. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the committee that produced the Universal Declaration and whose politics would not render the notion of “economic, social, and cultural rights” implausible. But however one parses the causality, the net effect was a form of moral equivalence whose essential hypocrisy badly damaged the cause of basic human rights: for, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once put it, the “second category” of rights (economic, social, and cultural) was “designed to please states that denied their subjects the first” (civil rights and political freedoms).

The Universal Declaration also left unsettled such basic questions as the source of rights (the person? the state?), even as its one-size-fits-all conceptual scheme avoided some pressing real-world questions of modern political organization. For instance: Does not a state’s recognition of certain inalienable civil rights create social and political conditions for the pursuit of other public goods? Don’t the moral claims embedded in basic civil liberties form an essential barrier against the tendency of all modern states to extend the reach of their coercive power into every nook and cranny of life? Or, to put the matter squarely: Aren’t some human rights more basic than others, in terms of both protecting people from tyranny and organizing a just society?

The superior economic and political performance of the West during the Cold War seemed to confirm that there were, in fact, some priorities among rights, even as it confounded the hoary claim of Marxist regimes that their people were guaranteed health care and jobs, and that these far outweighed such bourgeois luxuries as free speech and a legal political opposition. (As it turned out, of course, the repression of civil liberties and political freedoms went hand in hand with lousy health care and bogus jobs.) Today, such East Asian success stories as South Korea and Taiwan suggest that civil liberties, admirable economic performance, and democratization may not always be related just as they are in Western democracies, given other cultures and the exigencies of economic development from low baselines. But in the U.N. system all such crucial questions have been largely ignored as ever more detailed lists of “rights” are concocted, compiled, and promulgated, in a manner reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s fictional Major “Fido” Hound, who believed that “in bumf lay salvation.”

This degrading process played itself out in sadly predictable terms in 1993 at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. There, under U.N. auspices, a final declaration was adopted that failed to affirm clearly such basic human rights as religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. Instead, the Vienna Conference, following long-standing U.N. practice, hammered away at the putative “right to development,” which in practice has meant unlimited drawing rights on Western treasuries for Third World incompetents or despots.1 Even worse, the Vienna Conference accelerated the trivialization of rights-talk in world politics by declaring toxic-waste dumping a human rights violation—thus putting Love Canal in the same moral category as the Sudanese officials who are crucifying Christian tribesmen for their beliefs.

The U.N. World Summit for Social Development, to be held in Copenhagen in March, may be expected to contribute to this process of blunting human rights claims by utterly trivializing them. The Draft Declaration and Draft Programme of Action for the “social development” summit are a fabulous wish-list of liberal and radical nostrums for the creation of the egalitarian society. Were they to be implemented, they would involve nothing less than the creation of a kind of Quotas International as an enforcement agency. Thus, for instance, in the name of economic and social rights, the Draft Declaration commits the signatory nations to “establish policies, objectives, and measurable goals to enhance gender balance in decision-making at all levels,” even as it endorses the Orwellian notion that state signatories should “promote changes in attitudes, policies, and practices in order to eliminate all obstacles to full gender equity and equality.” Meanwhile, in its discussion of poverty in “Africa and the least developed countries,” the Draft Declaration and Programme of Action say nothing, simply nothing, about governmental corruption as a cause of the economic backwardness of the Third World and its peoples’ subsequent impoverishment.

Similar intellectual and moral depredations may be expected from the U.N.’s Fourth International Conference on Women, which will be held this September in Beijing (that ancient bastion of gender-equity and gender-equality). An early draft of the Beijing conference’s “Platform for Action” married the old Western feminist agenda of quotas and “comparable worth” to the new “gender” agenda of the feminist-deconstructionists, in order to promote such innovations as “women-friendly credit systems” (platform item #68) and governmental “gender analysis” of all public policy programs (#100), in aid of the conference’s stated political objective: to “end inequality in sharing of power and decision-making.” That all of this is to be done by governmental fiat is simply taken for granted by the Beijing “Draft Platform for Action”—which is itself an interesting reflection on the understanding of human rights within the U.N. system.

All in all, then, the United Nations shows few signs of becoming a forum for serious debate about— much less concerted action in defense of—”universal and inalienable human rights” as they have been traditionally understood in the West.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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