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About the Author:
Micheline R. Ishay is Professor and Director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Denver
There are no universal ethics. This was at least what the Greek historian Herodotus argued more than two thousand years ago, illustrating his point with a story about the Persian king Darius. The king, wrote Herodotus, summoned several Greeks and asked them how much money it would take for them to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. Outraged, they proclaimed their refusal to perform such a gruesome act at any price, adding that cremation of the dead was a sacred obligation. Darius then called upon some Indians, who by custom ate their deceased parents, and asked them if they would consider burning the bodies of their fathers. Insulted, they replied that such an act would be a horrible crime. The lesson, concluded Herodotus, was simply that each nation regards its own customs as superior.
Through the ages, Herodotus's observation seemed an apt characterization of humankind's immersion in war after war, its dark implications nowhere more apparent than in the twentieth century's near triumph of Nazism and fascism, in which doctrines of national supremacy were used to justify the annihilation of presumably inferior cultures and races. When those forces were finally turned back after five years of brutal world war, the survivors were determined as never before to resurrect a lasting universalethics from the ashes of unprecedented destruction. At Dumbarton Oaks in 1945, the victorious Allied powers set the stage for a new international order; at San Francisco that same year, they unveiled their plan for an international organization that would secure peace and human rights; and in New York three years later, the General Assembly of the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Overcoming obstacles posed by divergent cultures and deeply rooted ideological divisions, the source of so much bloodshed across the centuries, would hardly be an easy task. None were more aware of that challenge than the members of the Human Rights Commission, which had been charged in 1945 with the drafting of the declaration. After all, the commission members themselves, under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), represented starkly contrasting cultural backgrounds and philosophies. One may wonder how the Chinese Confucian philosopher, diplomat, and commission vice-chairman Pen-Chung Chang (1892-1957), the Lebanese existentialist philosopher and rapporteur Charles Malik (1906-1987), and the French legal scholar and later Nobel Prize laureate René Cassin (1887-1976) were able to arrive at a common understanding of human rights. Yet despite constant philosophical rivalries between Malik and Chang, coupled with the political tension between Cassin, a Jew who had lost twenty-nine relatives in the Holocaust and who was a supporter of the creation of a Jewish state, and Malik, a spokesperson for the Arab League (formed in 1945), these strong personalities managed to work together toward the drafting of the declaration. One might also wonder how the eight delegates representing states embroiled in armed conflict with each other found a way to put their differences aside. Remarkably, all of the human rights commissioners, deeply committed to their mission, responded to their historical mandate by transcending the myriad differences that set them apart.
Struggling to find a common language, they commissioned the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to conduct an inquiry into the diversity of human rights viewpoints across the globe. UNESCO in turn circulated a questionnaire to various thinkers and writers from member states, seeking their particular understandings of human rights, as drawn from their religious, cultural and intellectual backgrounds. "How," asked one of UNESCO's participants, the French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), "can we imagine an agreement of minds between men who come from the four corners of the globe and who not only belong to different cultures and civilizations, but are of antagonistic spiritual associations and schools of thought?" Yet finding such an agreement was the mandate of the Human Rights Commission as it began to derive a common language of human rights from a host of cultural, religious, and political traditions.
In their search for a new universal ethics, the commission members affirmed that the history of the philosophic tradition of human rights extended beyond the "narrow limits of the Western tradition and [that] its beginning in the West as well as in the East coincides with the beginning of philosophy." In that sense, from the onset of their work, they challenged the premise that universal human rights were purely a Western invention traceable to the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. Instead, they would look to all the world's great religions and cultures for the universal notions of the common good that had inspired the Enlightenment's human rights visionaries. The outcome of their discussions culminated in the development and ratification, on December 10, 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the preeminent document of international rights summarizing secular and religious notions of rights that had evolved throughout the centuries. The first nineteen articles of the declaration captured rights related to various personal liberties (life, security of one's person, diverse protections against cruel treatment, equality before the law, etc.), rights that had been fought for during the Enlightenment; articles 20-26 addressed rights related to social and economic equity (social security, the right to work, the right to just remuneration, the freedom to join trade unions, limitation of working hours, periodic holidays with pay, the right to education, etc.) championed during the industrial revolutionary era; and articles 27-28 focused on rights associated with communal and national solidarity, advocated during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and throughout the post-colonial era.
According to René Cassin, these clusters of rights embodied generations of rights, each summed up, in chronological order, by one of the three words of the famous French revolutionary motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité." Not only does this legendary tripartite slogan help lay out the main themes of this book, it also contributes to the structure of this chapter. Elaborating on UNESCO participants' views, this chapter stresses early ethical contributions to the spirit that informed the Universal Declaration. It highlights ancient texts that informed the drafting of this document, rather than the historical events (of the contradictions between theory and historical reality) on which subsequent chapters are based. It begins with a general discussion of religious and secular universalism, followed by a look at ancient understandings of liberty, then by an assessment of old texts on equality and an overview of ancient thought on the promotion of justice, and ends with a discussion of the pre-Enlightenment question Fraternity for whom?
RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR NOTIONS OF UNIVERSALISM
Despite the many controversies regarding the origins of human rights, one should note that few of the drafters of the Universal Declaration and few of UNESCO's respondents disputed that religious humanism and ancient traditions influence our secular and modern understanding of rights. Putting aside the issue of divine revelation, which has at various times led to arbitrary interpretations and applications, most religious texts incorporate a notion of universalism containing altruistic guidelines that could apply if not to all individuals, as a contemporary definition would require, then to a substantial portion of humanity. While human rights force us to think about universality in political and economic terms, they benefit, from such portrayals of universal brotherly love as one finds in Micah (the Hebrew Bible), Paul (the New Testament), the Buddha, and others, and also, in a different way, from the detached universal love professed by the Stoics, like Epictetus, and advocates like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. If the Greek and Roman notions of laws and rights, eclipsed during the Middle Ages, had been reinvoked during the Enlightenment, other non-Western notions of the common good would have been reclaimed during the anti-colonial struggles and in our globalized era.
Maintaining that human rights transcend religious and ideological differences, René Cassin nonetheless recognized their religious and natural law foundations. By proclaiming that all human beings "should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood," the first article of the declaration corresponded to the biblical injunction "love thy neighbour as thyself" and "love the stranger as you love yourself" (Leviticus 19:18-33 Jerusalem Bible [hereafter JB]). We must not lose sight of fundamentals, Cassin claimed, in noting that "the concept of human rights comes from the Bible, from the Old Testament, from the Ten Commandments. Whether these principles were centered on the church, the mosque, or the polis, they were often phrased in terms of duties, which now presume rights. For instance, Thou shall not murder is the right to life. Thou shall not steal is the right to own property, and so on and so forth. We must not forget that Judaism gave the world the concept of human rights."
Some may argue that the Jewish precepts invoked by Cassin were, however, themselves traceable in part to Hammurabi's Code, the oldest surviving collection of laws. The Babylonian code narrates the moral principles of a people, sanctioning punishments for those who transgress the law; discussing how one should marry, divorce, and work the land; proposing ways to regulate the wages of agricultural laborers and craftsmen; and establishing duties and fees for doctors, veterinary surgeons, builders and sailors. The laws of ancient Israel, after all, had been influenced by the Jewish experience in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. Indeed, the book of Exodus describes the period of Jewish emancipation from slavery in Egypt, but also invokes the Babylonian talion principle of progressive punishment: "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, bruise for bruise" (Exodus 21:24-25 JB).
Yet unlike Hammurabi's Code, ancient Jewish laws did not differentiate between the rights of patricians (or free individuals) and those of commoners. Jewish laws even went a step further, explicitly placing the rights of Jews and Gentiles on an equal footing. The Bible claimed that God's statutes and laws were for everyone (Leviticus 18:5 JB), and God's call for Jewish emancipation was voiced in terms of the uplifting of other peoples as well: "Are you not as much mine as the children of the Ethiopians, O children of Israel? Says the Lord. Have I not brought up Israel out of the Land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Kaftor, and the Syrians from Kir?" (Amos 9:7 JB). That aspect of ancient Jewish tradition has long been invoked to counter criticism about Jewish particularism associated with the notion of a "chosen people," providing a basis for rabbis to respond that "Israel was not elected for honor, or for particular privilege, but for service."
Cassin, along with the political scientist S.V. Puntambekar, one of the respondents to UNESCO's questionnaire, was also aware of the contribution to universalism of some aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism. For Puntambekar, Hinduism offered important "spiritual aims and values for mankind," beyond the "demands of economic technocracy, political bureaucracy and religious idiosyncrasy." "Both Manu and Buddha," he claimed, "propounded a code as it were of ten essential human freedoms and controls or virtues of good life." The first five tenets of social assurances included: "freedom from violence (Ahimsa), freedom from want (Asteya), freedom from exploitation (Aparigraha), freedom from early death and disease (Armritatva and Arogya)." To these five freedoms corresponded five virtues or controls: "absence of intolerance (Akrodha), compassion (Bhutadaya, Adroha), knowledge (Jnana, Vidya), freedom of conscience and freedom from fear, frustration and despair (Pravrtti, Abhaya, Dhrti)."
One may add to Puntambekar's account that the dharma, the religious and moral law governing individual conduct, understood in the Vedas, also offers universally encompassing prescriptive and descriptive guidelines of morality. Yet Hinduism's cosmological focus, in which organic and inorganic matters interrelate in a symbiotic whole, should not imply that individuals are passive cogs in a preordained universe, exempt from moral actions and judgments. Their rights need first to be earned as they ideally accomplish a life journey of moral duties. They should first strive for kama, or pleasures derived from the human senses under the control of the mind: for example, pleasures derived from art, music, literature, and sexual activity. Gaining material control, in economic and political (artha) terms, without being subject to greed and desire, is as central as learning to perform just actions (dharma).
Specific to Buddhism is the concept of selflessness (anatma), a notion that along with the idea of the individual's innate suffering (duhkha) involves feelings of universal compassion. After leading an ascetic life of renunciation for six years, the Buddha understood that detachment from the world could not be an ultimate solution. Drawing lessons from his years of solitude, he realized that in the process of self- negation, the sufferings of other creatures became more evident and compassion for other creatures immanent. Proposing a "middle path" between self-indulgence and self-renunciation, the Buddha's ultimate aim was to reach Nirvana, a realm in which all living things are free from pain and suffering. His devotion to compassion and solidarity later became the cornerstone of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which urges individuals to work toward the salvation of others-a message that was disseminated throughout the world by the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Chung-Shu Lo, a Chinese philosopher and special consultant at UNESCO, drew on the classic Book of History to illustrate comparable sentiments in the Chinese cultural tradition. "Heaven," he quoted, "sees as other people see; Heaven hears as our people hear. Heaven is compassionate towards the people. What the people desire, Heaven will be found to bring about. A ruler has a duty to heaven to take care of the interest of his people. In loving his people, the ruler follows the will of Heaven." Like Buddhism, "Chinese ethical teaching emphasized the sympathetic attitude of regarding all one's fellow men as having the same desires, and therefore the same rights, as one would like to enjoy oneself."
Excerpted from THE HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS by MICHELINE R. ISHAY Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Early ethical contributions to human rights||15|
|2||Human rights and the enlightenment : the development of a liberal and secular perspective on human rights||63|
|3||Human rights and the industrial age : the development of a socialist perspective on human rights||117|
|4||The world wars : the institutionalization of international rights and the right to self-determination||173|
|5||Globalization and its impact on human rights||245|
|6||Promoting human rights in the twenty-first century : the changing arena of struggle||315|
|App||A chronology of events and writings related to human rights||357|
Posted December 12, 2011
No text was provided for this review.