Human rights champion

November 19, 2022

Few these days recognise the name of Charles Malik. Fewer know how much his work helped shape the post-war international order based on respect for human rights. Fewer still are aware how much his devout Christian faith guided this global stateman’s career as politician and diplomat, philosopher and theologian. 

Yet the name Charles Habib Malik (1906-1987) was constantly in world headlines in post-war years as signatory to the UN Charter, president of the General Assembly, a rotating member of the Security Council, founding member of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and rapporteur and then chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission. 

I had the privilege last week of hosting his son on this month’s Schuman Talk. Human rights activist Habib Malik (b. 1954) is a Harvard PhD like his father. He is a Senior Fellow at the Philos Project and works there in the Charles Malik Institute of Philos, which oversees his father’s intellectual legacy. 

Charles Malik was born and raised in the Ottoman Empire, now northern Lebanon. While Greek Orthodox ‘to the bone’, as Habib expressed it, his father attended a Protestant secondary boarding school and then the American University of Beirut. He then pursued a doctorate in philosophy under Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard and with Martin Heidegger in Germany.

After the Second World War, Malik became Lebanon’s ambassador to the USA (1945-55) and Lebanon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs (1956-58), attending the founding conference of the UN in 1945, and joining the newly formed Human Rights Commission. His diplomatic skills as chairman of the UN General Assembly enabled the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, 1948. Forty-eight nations voted in favour, eight abstained, with none against.

That was seen as a miracle given the global political animosity during the Berlin blockade by the Soviets under Stalin (June 1948 – May 1949).  As Habib pointed out in the interview, there was a brief window of time, before the Cold War truly began and China turned communist, when such an international consensus could be achieved.

Free and equal

The enormity of the gross violation of human rights during the war had galvanised the resolve of world leaders and academics to prevent such injustices from ever happening again on such a scale. The formulation of the UDHR was part of the effort to create universal aceptance of the idea of human rights as the pillar of a new world order. Its first article read:

‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’

Malik had insisted on the inclusion of the phrase in bold type above to stress the centrality of freedom of conscience and choice. He urged delegates to look past their ideologies and focus fully on the human person. He challenged both the communist concept of collectivism on the one hand, and the capitalistic view of society as atomistic individuals seeking their own economic self-interest. 

Two particular articles on the UDHR are attributed to his influence. Article 16 concerns marriage and family, affirming the right to marry (with the free and full consent of the intending spouses), to found a family, and to equal rights during marriage and at its dissolution. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 18 caused the Saudis to abstain from voting and continues to raise objections in the Muslim world where it is often violated: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Record number

Globally recognised for his role in the adoption of the UDHR, he was granted a record number of over fifty honorary doctorates from leading universities around the world. Malik followed a rigorous personal Bible reading schedule, wrote numerous commentaries on the Bible and on the writings of the early Church Fathers. He was an active member of the World Council of Churches (1967-71), and was vice-president of the United Bible Societies (1966-71). 

In his keynote address at the inauguration of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, he warned against evangelical anti-intellectualism, speaking of the ‘two tasks’ of saving the soul and that of saving the mind

‘I have no patience with piety alone,’ he said, ‘I want the most rigorous intellectual training, I want the perfection of the mind. Equally, I have no patience with reason alone – I want the salvation of the soul, I want the fear of the Lord.’ 

P.S. A memorial service honouring Brother Andrew’s life held yesterday in his home town of Harderwijk, The Netherlands, can be viewed here. Romkje shared some brief reflections starting at 33′ 45″. See also the Weekly Word of Oct 1, 2022

Till next week,

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