By William Saunders, JD
This is a year of many anniversaries related to human rights, such as the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the 20th anniversary of the crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party against the Falun Gong, and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there is another anniversary, too often forgotten, that, in many ways, serves as a basis for our evaluation of, and judgments on, current events in light of our shared commitment to human rights.
On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly announced and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration, adopted unanimously, states certain rights that must be respected, among them the right to life, the right to religious freedom, and the right to marry and found a family. It is a remarkable achievement, reflecting a consensus among the diverse collection of nations that make up the UN, nations that hardly ever agree on anything. But they agreed this time. Why? Because, following the utter devastation of World War II, which was unlike anything that had preceded it, they believed that a commitment to human rights was the only thing that could prevent the world from falling into a third world war, one that might mean the very end of humanity itself.
The Declaration is not perfect, and some criticize it on various grounds, such as that it is an incoherent “shopping list”. Those alive today face the perennial question: is the glass half full or half empty? The Popes, particularly John Paul II, have not stinted from seeing the glass as half full. True, it fails to enunciate a coherent underlying theory that would unify the rights recognized; however, it, at least, recognizes the existence of these rights and it insists they must be respected. So the glass is half-full. To vary the metaphor, we can build on that.
And how are we to go about building a sturdy doctrine of human rights? Just as John Paul II did – by proposing, to all people of good will, an understanding of human rights built upon the teaching of the Church in its social doctrine. That deeper understanding will unify the “list,” as well as guide us when we need to consider whether to add to the list. And this deeper understanding is what we aim to provide in our master of arts degree in human rights. The Declaration is a fundamental tool in this dialogue among people of good will, and we celebrate its anniversary.