Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31 Number 14. June 25, 1968
U. N. Document 'Dangerous And Hypocritical'
U. N. Document 'Dangerous And Hypocritical'
"The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is a dangerous and hypocritical document which is likely to exaggerate the very situation it is intended to improve."
This view was stated by Mr R. G. Mulgan of the Political Science Department in the second of the lecture series for the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
Defining "rights" Mr Mulgan said, "there are non-legal or moral rights in terms of which we criticise, alter and construct law. It is this sort or right which we are conconcerned with in a discussion of human rights.
"To ascribe moral rights to individuals is not a similar process to ascribing legal rights. They are demands that people ought to be treated in a particular way. Not statements that they are or will be so treated.
"These moral statements", said Mr Mulgan, "are statements of value distinct from statements of fact.
"It is the individual who 'possesses' the right, who is the source of the duty which he places on other people. Rights are a sort of moral property belonging to their owner.
"The possession of a right entitles one to limit the action of another. Thus the language of individual rights implies that the individual and his needs and claims are the foundations upon which the obligations of morality are based.
"The acceptance of the theory of human rights by most peoples, or at least by their leaders is one of the least noticed legacies of imperialism.
"Along with the Bible and industrialisation, the theory of human rights has been foisted by the west on a more or less unwilling world. This unforeseen consequence of western colonialism, the extension of a set of principles which was originally constructed to one social and economic context, to cover the whole world is likely to create great difficulties."
Mr Mulgan said that the whole idea of human rights had come under attack.
"It is impossible to draw up, in general terms, an absolute right. General rights can only give us guidelines or presumptions. They cannot provide clear cut solutions for all possible legal, political or moral situations.
"Furthermore there is the possibility or rather the inevitably that one right will clash with another."
However, "it does not follow from the fact that rights cannot be defined clearly and must sometimes be limited, that they are either useless or nonsensical," said Mr Mulgan.
"The facts of human nature are too complicated to allow us to extract any single, universal natural purpose. We should recognise the truth of the view put forward by Rousseau and Hegel, that men's needs and aspirations, vary according to particular social context in which they find themselves. The fact that men's economic, political cultural backgrounds are so widely disparate creates real difficulties.
"This diversity does not rule out the possibility of talking meaningfully in terms of human rights. But it does give serious doubts about the value of the United Nations declaration."
Mr Mulgan said that most thoughtful supporters of the Declaration would agree that all human rights will not be enjoyed by all the world's population in the near future.
They would claim the Declaration was a "step in the right direction." In this he felt the supporters of the Declaration were wrong.
While the developed countries could overcome difficulties in defining rights and arbitrating between them, the situation in underdeveloped countries is quite different.
"We have seen the tragic consequences of demanding that all societies must have democratic institutions on our model, regardless of their particular situation and needs.
"It is this sort of well-intentioned bungling that a document such as the Declaration, epitomises and encourages.
"The United Nations Declaration says that all men should be equally treated in certain fundamental respects, But it sets the level impossibly high. The underprivileged are not to be blamed for thinking it a highly disingenuous document.
"If we will not practise what we preach, then we should at least be prepared to accept a particular requirement as a human right only if three conditions are satisfied:—
"Firstly, if we think that it is important that all men ought to enjoy it; Secondly, if all men can enjoy it now, or at least, in the not too distant future; Thirdly, if we are prepared to do our bit to help all men to enjoy it if they do not already do so.
"Instead of starting at the top and describing the fundamental rights of a citizen to the most developed country, we should start at the bottom and find those rights which should and could be guaranteed to all men."