'Universal' Human Rights?

December 7, 2008

This week the world is commemorating the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights-and rightly so. As an international Magna Carta, it’s authority and influence has been unparalleled. It has set a global standard for governments everywhere and stirred the aspirations of countless individuals and organisations.

Today more people than ever before live under democratic constitutions protecting human rights, and the broad public support of the Universal Declaration (udhr) is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

And yet it continues to be ignored, violated and challenged all around the globe, including by UN member nations. Autocratic, communist and muslim governments are among those who object to the democratic implications of human rights.

The Russian Orthodox Church last year, siding with the increasingly autocratic Russian government, affirmed that human rights were not universal and unalienable, and were not above the interests of the state; but were given by God and the state. (The Soviet Bloc, along with the apartheid government of South Africa and Saudi Arabia, abstained from the UN vote adopting the udhr on December 10, 1948.)

Individual rights also don’t fit the model of China’s socialist political democracy, in which human rights are defined as ‘the promotion of economic development and social progress’.

Muslims have viewed the udhr as a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition in conflict with Islamic Law. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights (1990) affirmed the ‘freedom and right to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic Shari’ah’.


Actually, the Muslims are right. The intellectual and ethical content of the udhr was strongly shaped by Jewish, Protestant and Catholic advisors in the post-war efforts to create a new world order in the aftermath of Nazi atrocities. Although efforts to include the name of God in the text were rejected, the secularised formulations presuppose Judeo-Christian ethical principles.

Secularists at the time, along with the American Founding Fathers, assumed as self-evident ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unailenable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’.

The fact that the udhr received such global support in the first place was due to the widespread consensus that some things like murder, theft, injustice and dishonesty, were wrong. God has written such laws on the hearts of men, Paul tells us in Romans chapter 2, as part of his ‘common grace’ to humankind.

But secularism-built on sand and always restless-has moved on. Postmodern philosophers in the West now challenge the very idea of human rights. There is no Creator to endow such rights. No such values are transcendent. They’re mere human constructions and projections. They are simply relative,

Ywamers fighting for the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been opposed by secular anthropologists claiming that to insist that all people be judged according to principles of human rights is an act of cultural imperialism.


Now, here’s the problem. If there was no personal Creator and no personal creation, then humans are simply improbable cosmic freaks, accidents of ‘time plus slime’. At what stage in that impersonal process did personhood evolve? When and whence did ‘values’ emerge? beauty? love? mercy? honesty? fidelity? human rights…? If life is accidental, then on what are such values based? Are they simply human constructions? If so, why not just let the fittest survive? Let the law of the jungle reign! As Nietzsche declared, ‘Might is right!’.

Or, could these values be transcendent signposts to Ultimate Reality? to a personal God who embodies such values?

The fact is that ‘secular’, ‘western’ principles of human rights developed out of Judeo-Christian understanding. They are rooted in the biblical concept of Imago Dei, that every human bears the image of his/her maker, and for that reason alone deserves respect. That includes Amazonian children who are being buried alive with the tacit consent of officials and anthropologists who want to ‘protect culture’-but not individuals.

Autocratic, communist and muslim governments have correctly perceived the challenge of the udhr. We can thank God for the global influence of this document, however imperfect, over the past six decades.

Till next week,

Till next week,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for Weekly Word