Fifty Years After the Declaration: The United Nations’ Record on Human Rights

April 12, 2010 • Posted in Book Reviews

With the recently approved Human Rights Council replacing the widely discredited United Nations’ Human Rights Commission, Fifty Years After the Declaration:  The United Nations’ Record on Human Rights is a timely and, indeed, a necessary read.  Whatever one’s interpretation of the United Nations’ beginnings, history, or current functioning, a retrospective consideration of that body’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, published in 1948, is a task worthy of the time required to digest this short work.

Having experienced two world wars in little more than thirty years’ time, those who composed the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 were hopeful of preventing another outbreak of such carnage.  It is perhaps understandable that they should scribe in that document’s Preamble, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world . . .” and then present thirty articles toward the end of recognizing, naming, and defending those rights on the world’s stage.  The declaration was proclaimed from Paris, the meeting place of the UN General Assembly in 1948, and has enjoyed wide support over the years — perhaps.

Habib C. Malik, whose late father helped in the genesis of the 1948 document, offers an excellent historical view in the book’s introduction.  Exactly what has the fifty years since the declaration wrought for the world’s peoples, in terms of human rights?  Seventeen chapters in this compilation of essays by the Family Research Council detail experiences in differing nations in light of various articles of the declaration.   How has religious freedom fared?  Or the right to life?  David Alton looks at “The Paramount Human Right:  The Right to Life.” Other subjects include the right to health; the role of the UN in drug control; and whether cloning and euthanasia are compatible with the declared human dignity and consequent rights.  Not only is the compatibility of these issues with human rights assessed, but also the history of the United Nations’ actions or inactions is considered.  If one issued a report card to the UN regarding the fulfillment of that body’s stated goals in the declaration, a reckoning would follow.  The final chapter is an excellent dissection of some basic presumptions in the United Nations, as well as the venerable document known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by a former ambassador to the UN, Alan Keyes.  His pithy analysis brings the book to a strong conclusion.

One cannot read this book without becoming acutely aware of the deficits that abound — in our own country as well as in the world — in the area of human rights.  From an international group, with the horrors of war fresh on its collective mind, seeking some promise of “never again,” the UN has become increasingly the pawn of ideologues with funding as their trump card.  “Human rights” have metamorphosed from the right to life to include aspects of individuality that masquerade as rights, such as the right to health that is defined as “‘a state of total physical, social and mental well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’” (p. 26).  It is most definitely time to thoughtfully consider where we are going with respect to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Teresa Wagner and Leslie Carbone, Editors.  Lanham, MD:  University Press of America, Inc; and Oxford, UK:  Cumnor Hill, 2001.  ISBN 0-7618-1842-1, 162 pp., paper $15.00.

Reviewed by D. Joy Riley, MD, MA (Bioethics) who serves as Executive Director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture.

Originally published 2006

Reprinted with kind permission of Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics