What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Below is the description from the United Nations website:
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages. The UDHR is widely recognized as having inspired, and paved the way for, the adoption of more than seventy human rights treaties, applied today on a permanent basis at global and regional levels (all containing references to it in their preambles).”
I applaud the United Nations. We in the United States are lucky. Our Bill of Rights, which is comprised of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, was ratified by the US Congress in 1791. It took the world a little longer but eventually the nations of the world were able to come together to pass the UDHR. I am not sure every country in the world is abiding by the UDHR (in fact I am sure that many are not) but at least we have it.
The UDHR includes some 30 articles that are designed to protect citizens of the world and include many of the protections we included in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. However, I think there is a major flaw in one of the most critical articles in the UDHR. Article 3 states that: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” This article is somewhat like what is stated in the Declaration of Independence that reads: “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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Note that the UDHR doesn’t say where these rights come from. It just states that everyone has these rights. To put it in context, the Declaration of Independence specifically states that these rights are “endowed by their Creator.” Given that the word “Creator” is capitalized, and given that the Founding Fathers were religious men, it must be assumed that Creator is God. The rights encoded in the UDHR are not endowed by a Creator, or God, but by the purview of nations. In the Preamble of the UDHR, it is left to the “organs of society” to “secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.” So, the UDHR is saying that it is up to the governments of the various nations to make sure these rights are recognized and observed. The very same governments that in 1948, when the UDHR was passed, were being run by the likes of Mae Zedong, Joseph Stalin and Kim II-Sung. Seems to me that rights given by God might just have a little better chance of being protected by governments than rights given by governments.
However, I am trying to not be too critical because again I applaud the United Nations. I think the greater issue is the three primary rights that are delineated in the UDHR. The first two rights in both the UDHR and the Declaration of Independence are life and liberty. Both of those rights are easy to understand. No one else has the right to take your life, and on one else has the right to restrain your liberty. Obviously, there are some exceptions to the rule such as if you are a mass murder or have committed some other heinous crime. However, in general I think people who support human rights agree that both life and liberty are important.
The next right gets a little tricky. In the US, the third right is pursuit of happiness. I think we can agree that the pursuit of happiness means we should be free to live our lives the way we wish to live them, if what we do in the pursuit of happiness isn’t something that is illegal or that negatively affects others. Alternatively, the third right under the UDHR is security of person. While I think most of us will agree it is better if people live in a world where those people feel secure, or are secure, as opposed to not being secure, the right to security presents some problems.
Note that in the three American rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, can be achieved if the rest of the people you live with do absolutely nothing. In other words, if I just leave you alone, you can enjoy your life, have your liberty, and pursue those things that make you happy. All it takes is for me, the rest of us, and the government, to get out of your way. Of course, there is a risk that you make a bunch of bad choices and don’t achieve life, liberty, and happiness, but it is your choice. I think the Founding Fathers recognized that some people given freedom will not handle it well, but the greater good comes from everyone having freedom, even if some people don’t use it wisely.
In the UDHR the third right is security, as I have mentioned. Security poses a problem. To achieve security, it puts a burden on the other people in society not to do nothing, but to do something. For you to pursue happiness no one else must do anything. Not so with security. For you to feel secure, or be secure, it may very well require other members of society to do something. Further, security is a feeling. Note that “happiness” is a feeling but under the Declaration of Independence you have the right to “pursue” happiness, but you don’t have the right to BE happy. A right cannot be a feeling, but security in one sense is a state of being but in another sense, it is a feeling. You could be sitting in the most secure place in the world, guarded by security systems, camera, and storm troopers, but you might still not feel “secure.” I am happy to walk the streets of New York. I feel secure. Someone else, on the other hand, might not feel secure walking the streets of New York. How could we possibly deliver the feeling of security if security is a right?
The people who crafted the UDHR I am sure had the best of intentions. As this document was created just following World War Two, it was obviously an attempt to keep the atrocities and violations of human rights that occurred during that war at bay. However, they got it wrong. Security cannot logically be a “right” whether granted by a Creator or granted by a governing body. A right cannot be a right if it is achieved by forcing someone else to do something for you to enjoy the benefit of that right, and further a right certainly cannot be a right if it is a feeling because no one else, either individually or organizationally, can control your feelings, only you can.
The Founding Fathers got it right. The UDHR got it wrong. Why is this important? Because if you accept that security is a right, then in order to deliver security you must force other members of society to do something to provide that security, and when you force other members of society to do something (as opposed to doing nothing) to secure the rights of another, you are by the very nature infringing on the first two rights of life and liberty. You can’t infringe on one right, in order to provide another right. My recommendation is that the United Nations go back and change the UDHR to what our Founders put in the Declaration of Independence. As a wise man once said to me, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.