Archive for October, 2009

A Student’s Perspective on the Merits of Reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Fourth Grade Students With the Presumption That They Will Appreciate and Accept the Document

October 21, 2009 Leave a comment

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a document adopted approximately unanimously by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 with applicability to the present and the indefinite future. It is not a treaty; its purpose is to define what rights and freedoms all people hold in the context of international law, and to provide a normative standard by which to evaluate subsequent legislation, in essence pointing a giant finger of shame at nations who do not comply with its definitions and mandates. I say it was adopted ‘approximately unanimously’ because, in spite of what one might expect, eight nations chose to abstain from a vote, unwilling to approve its contents and not desiring to see the look of shame from the international community if they went against the grain.

My professor of international law recently informed our class of a local elementary school’s decision to educate its fourth grade class on the UDHR by having them read it aloud and then discuss it with an adult for a study period. This sort of session inevitably comes with an assumption that the students will approve of the declaration and agree with its contents. Moreover, to those students who do not agree, it is expected that ‘education’ on the topic will help swing them to the right side of the fence. But the UDHR is a terrible document which these United States should never have approved, and to reveal it to fourth grade students as an assumed good, rather than as a potentially contentious work, is a tremendous mistake in education.

For brevity, I shall discuss here only the sections of the UDHR which I consider to be most obviously and immediately contentious or disdainful; it should not be assumed that any sections not bashed and criticized herein are otherwise approved. I draw the reader’s attention to Article 2 of the UDHR, which states, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…” This article opens with a laudable claim, that we are all entitled to the same rights, but then continues to list some potential reasons why we might not be granted equal rights, as a preemptive strategy for dismissing them. The writers ought to have stopped at “…without distinction of any kind,” not obscured their message afterward. While I do not contest the validity of this article in the most literal sense possible, one cannot doubt that it will be (and, indeed, has been) interpreted to legitimize affirmative action. It opens the door to crying “Racism!” whenever a man of one skin color is given a job over another man of a different skin color, and in that way actually serves to decrease equality among races and ethnicities. It is effectively equivalent to the statement that we are all equal, especially some of us.

Article 3 proclaims, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” My immediate reaction is to ask for clarification of the phrase ‘right to life’. Once I need to ask for a clarification of anything, I consider the battle to already be over. But continuing anyway, I see three possible interpretations. Either this phrase means that we all have the right to not be murdered (killed by an aggressor), or that we all have the right to not be killed by another human (whether by an aggressor, a defender, or an executioner), or that we all have the right to have our lives actively protected by the government (such as with federal health care subsidies and public medical facilities). Even if I thought that all of these were good ideas, which I surely do not, I would still oppose this article on the grounds that citizens must be informed to make proper decisions, and ambiguous legal documents are inherently an impediment to an informed citizenry.

Article 4 follows with another puzzler: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” I want to know what servitude is. If criminals are forced to mow public parks to pay their debt to society, would we call this servitude?

Article 5 makes a statement that has been particularly relevant in recent years: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Anyone who follows current events at all will know that the definition of ‘torture’ has been contested, particularly in the context of investigations to preempt terrorist attacks on the United States. Torturing a convicted murderer for information is no concern of mine if it has the potential to prevent the deaths of innocent citizens in future attacks.

Making a leap to Article 23, we see a whole new level of egregiousness. This article goes beyond ambiguous or arguable claims and proceeds to the outright wrong. “(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment…” This is blatantly ridiculous and flies in the face of scientific economics. Employment is not, has never been, and will never be, a right. It is a privilege earned by productive capacity – a reward for being willing and able to do useful things. The arbiter, or decider, of who is and is not entitled to work is public demand in the free market. That is, a person whose services are desirable will become employed in a free market; a useless person will not. Furthermore, I cannot conceive of what the phrase ‘protection against unemployment’ means except that people whose usefulness to an operation has expired are somehow owed compensation for the fact that they are no longer useful.

The article goes on, “(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” This is not a declaration of a human right; it is a declaration of social welfare – by the supposedly universal United Nations! Even if the reader is a socialist himself, he ought to consider that the issues of free markets versus socialized markets are by no means settled, and should not be treated as if they are settled. There is no nation-wide consensus that everyone has a right to employment; diplomats representing the various nations are therefore at fault for behaving as though such a consensus exists. Setting aside all debate over whether capitalism is the right system to adopt, the simple fact that such a debate exists means this article is disrespectful of government by, of, and for the people.

In the spirit of government regulation to limit the rights of humans, rather than promote them, Article 24 states what appears to be an afterthought of Article 23: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” This generalization, which again invokes ‘right’ where ‘privilege’ is more appropriate, is reminiscent of the infamous French laws which inhibit enterprise and the earning of an honest living by limiting the hours a person can work in a given time interval. No one has a right to limitation of working hours, and further, to limit working hours is a damaging and immoral breach of personal freedoms. The time distribution of labor is an issue to be settled by private contract between employer and employee – if a man is discontent with his job, let him negotiate or quit it, not cry for intervention which will slow down more enthusiastic workers.

Article 25 continues the process of outlining positive entitlements and privileges under the guise of fundamental rights: “(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control…” It requires no explanation or leap of logic to see that this requires by definition a welfare state, a public reallocation of resources based on need rather than ability, which, if charities are insufficient to provide for the stated needs, will inevitably be accomplished by force – stealing, in the name of ‘taxation’. This follows in stark contrast to Article 17: “(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”

Article 26 adds as another afterthought the positive entitlement of public schools, with the added stipulation that schooling is not optional. “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory…” In addition to being impossible to maintain without violation of the right to property, this declaration calls into question the right to hold independent views and make independent decisions, considering the tendency of government-operated educational facilities to disrespect differing views, as seen in the inspiration for this essay.

To summarize, the UDHR is an evil document riddled with a combination of unintended and intended failures. Its repeated lack of specificity on critical issues not only renders it difficult to implement in law, but prone to abuse. Furthermore, to attempt to instill these generalizations in children squelches the opportunity for analytical thought and glosses over the importance of translating ethics into actual, enforceable law. It promotes the recent, expanding, and incredibly naïve mentality that the government solves problems by making broad declarations rather than implementing particular policies. Since the 2008 presidential campaign, the United States have observed a tremendous rise in deification of the administration, and this sort of child indoctrination does not help. The UDHR reeks of naïve attempts to fix real problems with idealistic proclamations. If the government could improve standard of living (increase economic output) by declaring, “People have a right to a basic standard of living,” it would. This does not happen. Citizens of the States would be wise to consider why, rather than adopting entangling international doctrines of socialism.

The bottom line, which is perceived negatively by some, but persists regardless of one’s philosophical inclination, is that the question of whether people have positive entitlements does not have a consensus answer. Everyone is absolutely certain of the answer, but they are certain of mutually exclusive things. Thus it is wrong of the diplomats who adopted the UDHR to have done so; they cannot claim to be representing their people when they make sweeping generalizations on seriously contested issues. Moreover, it is evil for an educational institution, particularly one educating children, to present a vague, moralistic, and highly contentious document as if it should be presupposed to have similar academic integrity as the Law of Gravity. Finally, it is politically unwise for the United States to allow themselves to become subject to doctrines such as this. If the ideas presented in the UDHR are valid, the States can implement them of their own accord, and, if not, then clearly we have no business adopting the doctrine. We do not need the United Nations to tell us to be socialist; we are doing just fine at that already.