That staying power derived in part from the follies committed by Eleanor Roosevelt when she led the drafting of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the basic international legal text on the subject. While the Universal Declaration does give priority to civil rights and political freedoms, it also uses the language of “rights” to describe a vast array of social and economic desiderata, such as jobs, health care, and education. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., once described the politics of the Declaration in these terms: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights included both ‘civil and political’ rights and ‘economic, social, and cultural rights,’ the second category designed to please states that denied their subjects the first.” This is, perhaps, too charitable an interpretation of the role of Mrs. Roosevelt, who was not unsympathetic to the idea that social and economic goods should be considered “rights.”
But however responsibility is assigned, the fact remains that the Universal Declaration, for all the good its norms have helped accomplish, has also fostered the confusion, and in some respects the debasement, of the human rights debate. By using the same language to describe both the immunities an individual holds against the state (civil rights) and the claims that an individual is putatively justified in making on the state (economic “rights”), the Universal Declaration created an image of moral equivalence that dozens of tyrants turned to their advantage. How many times, during the Cold War, did we hear it said, “Well, they just have a different concept of human rights— they think it’s more important to provide free health care and to guarantee everybody a job than to have regular elections and a free press”? Too many times, and not by cranks but by presumably serious people. The human rights curriculum approved by the National Council for the Social Studies in the early 1980s, for example, used precisely this tactic to suggest that the people of the oxymoronic People’s Republic of China enjoyed a large, if different, range of “human rights.”
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.