Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Author: Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher

Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher

Integral human development in a multilateral context

On 10 September [2018], for the occasion of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, addressed the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The Declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its third session on 10 December 1948. The accompanying text is an excerpt of the Archbishop’s discourse.

The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration provides the Holy See an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to the cause of human dignity, in a context where the precious patrimony of human rights, which the international community had solemnly proclaimed as the foundation of a new order in the aftermath of the horrors of war, appears seriously questioned, both in theory and in practice.

The theme chosen for this meeting “The Challenge of Universality” underscores the fact that the universality of human rights represents a crucial question for our age, a real topic stantis aut cadentis, the answer to which will determine whether human rights continue to mark the common horizon for the construction of our societies, the necessary point of reference for the exercise of political power and a guide for the path to be followed by the international community.

I would like to focus on three major challenges that, in the present historical context, threaten the recognition of the universality of human rights, and then look for possible paths of response. The three challenges are: a model of social development that is not sufficiently inclusive; the deviations related to growing cultural pluralism; and the persistent and serious violations of human rights that occur in different parts of the world.

The first challenge to the universality of human rights comes from the model of social development that we are pursuing, both at the level of advanced economies and at the global level. In recent years, we are witnessing in Western societies a greater breakdown of the social fabric, due to multiple factors, among which those of a socio-economic character: the growth of inequalities, the impoverishment of some sectors of the population, job insecurity, as well as the drastic downsizing of social protection systems. In general, we are witnessing a crisis in the implementation of social rights which particularly affects people in situations of vulnerability and which in many cases risks obscuring the dignity of the human person. Even on a global level, despite the overall growth of the world economy, entire populations remain in poverty and their situation is aggravated by the fact that the advances in communication technologies allow them to watch closely how other wealthy people are living in comfort and opulence.

The social situation we are experiencing, both in developed and in developing countries, is not irrelevant to the human rights discourse, which is gaining strength in many sectors. Without justifying these positions, we must try to understand them and remedy them to respond to an increasingly serious problem of social cohesion, before which we cannot remain mere spectators.

If we see with some apprehension, on a global scale, the emergence in certain countries of models of economic growth independent of democracy and without respect for human rights, we must likewise be concerned about the development of societies based merely on the affirmation of individual liberties, which put little emphasis on the virtue of solidarity. It is therefore necessary to ask whether the models of development we are pursuing, due to their lack of inclusiveness, are compatible, in the long term, with the affirmation of the universality of human rights.

A second challenge to the universality of human rights derives from the growing cultural pluralism that we experience within our societies. It is certainly not a new phenomenon.

In our day, however, the idea of pluralism seems to be undergoing a process of mutation. On the one hand, we are witnessing the rising trend of political nationalism and ideological fundamentalism, which seem ever less compatible with a society founded on the principles of democracy and human rights. On the other hand, part of the dominant liberal culture has shifted toward a radically individualistic interpretation of certain rights, or towards the affirmation of “new rights”.

The third challenge arises from the instability of the international order and the growing threats to peace. Here, it is not a question of a theoretical objection to the universality of human rights, but rather the troublesome spread of systematic and very serious violations of them, which continue to challenge the international community.

The three above mentioned challenges to the universality of human rights are among many that could potentially be discussed. At this point, I would like to offer some possible solutions from the perspective of the Holy See, which are inspired by the Social Teaching of the Church, as well as the prospects that the Universal Declaration may offer us 70 years later.

With regard to the first of the challenges indicated, concerning the insufficiently inclusive model of social development currently in evidence, it is fundamental to return to an essential aspect of the Universal Declaration: namely, the simultaneous affirmation of “political and civil” rights together with “economic, social and cultural” rights. It seems to me a crucial point, one that is often forgotten, that the protection and promotion of the former have different dynamics than the latter, but neither category can flourish without the other. When, for example, socio-economic rights erode, the whole structure of human rights weakens, and civil and political freedoms are more vulnerable to falling victim to the oppression caused by individualistic selfishness or populism.

This vision fully reflects what, from the perspective of social doctrine, we call “integral human development”. From the point of view of the Holy See, this means giving priority and attention to all human beings, but especially those in a situation of weakness, those at risk of being simply discarded, from the poor to the unemployed, from migrants to young people without education, from women victims of violence, to the elderly living in loneliness, to the unborn child, to the disabled. Such attention is expressed in the wide range of charitable and social commitments that the Catholic Church and the numerous Catholic-inspired institutions continue to undertake in the world. Moreover, integral development means “development of the whole man”, that is of each person in all their dimensions: starting from the basic needs of survival, the right to education, the possibility of participating in community life and including the need to live freely one’s religious faith and beliefs.

Turning to the second challenge, that of a growing cultural pluralism, I believe that an. answer must be sought in the robust affirmation of the right to freedom of religion, which is a condition for mutual respect and for real equality in the context of a pluralist society.

Religious freedom takes on a particular importance in the building of human rights, since it protects that relationship with the ultimate goal of existence, which constitutes the core of the transcendent dignity of the person, in which the different visions of man are also reflected. We know that freedom of religion is not limited merely to freedom of worship or professing one’s faith; it includes, as stated in Article 18 of the Declaration, the freedom “either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Freedom of religion demonstrates the open character of a democratic society: it means recognizing the limits of the State’s competence when it comes to questions at once both intimate and ultimate in their individual and communitarian dimensions. The growing distance between religious and non-religious cultures, as well as the great differences existing between, different religious visions and sometimes within the same traditions, require that the State avoid taking positions for one or another of the world’s visions. When the State is compelled indirectly to do so, it should respect citizens, allowing people and communities to live in accordance with their deep convictions, in so far as possible.

Certainly, an increase in pluralism can make it challenging to find a common understanding of the way in which these fundamental values are to find their expression in the context of a complex society. It is precisely on this point, in fact, that respect for freedom of religion can be of great help, through the search for reasonable compromises and the recognition of necessary spaces for conscientious objection. These are elements that, far from breaking social cohesion, can promote it, expressing the acceptance of the difficulties of living together, respect for the other and the plurality of points of view, as well as a recognition of the need to walk together in the common search for that which protects the universal dignity of the human person.

Finally, the third challenge concerns the instability of the international order, with wide-spread and serious violations that continue to be registered in many countries. This is a grave challenge that often leads to doubts about the effectiveness of the human rights-based approach to the well-being of humanity and the building of peace in the world. There are, of course, no easy answers to this challenge, but it seems to me that a path might be opened by considering what is referred to in Article 1 of the Declaration: after having affirmed that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” it adds: “they are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. This is an essential, and perhaps too often forgotten, point: the whole framework of human rights presupposes as a condition sine qua non the recognition, in a spirit of fraternity, that my rights and the rights of the other are interconnected and interdependent. Hence, if the dignity and rights of others are disregarded or trampled underfoot, then even my dignity and rights are in jeopardy.

An integral approach to the question of peace, which includes support for the development of the poorest nations, also implies responsibility for environmental protection, which is an essential part of the promotion and protection of human rights. This teaching is also clearly expressed by Pope Francis in his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, where he constantly stresses that “everything is interconnected”: respect for our own lives and for the lives of others; a fair economy and the enjoyment of rights; the health of democratic institutions and that of the protection of creation; caring for the environment, promoting justice and safe-guarding peace. “Everything is interconnected”: this could be another way of expressing the universality of human rights.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 September 2018, page 4

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