December 10 marks the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This is an historic and foundational document. It is secular but receives extremely wide support from different political, religious and non-religious trends. It arose in part as a reaction to the horrors and violence of the Second World war – particularly the Holocaust. But it has also been an inspiration for moral and social progress throughout the world – intermittent and unreliable as that has been.
AC Grayling is currently blogging in the Guardian on the UDHR – one article a day until December 10 (see AC Graylings articles on the UDHR). As always, his comments are worth reading.
The UDHR contains articles on slavery, torture, legal rights, privacy, freedom of movement, family, property, political activity, education, work, and social security.
The first three articles are fundamental:
Article 1: 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.
Article 2: 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. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
Freedom of expression
I think articles 18, 19 and 20 are also vital as they deal with freedom of belief and expression. When these freedoms are violated all other human rights are at risk because they cannot be defended.
Article 18: 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.
Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
- Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
- No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
Internationally, freedom of expression is under attack today. Besides the usual offenders we now have a concerted attack under the guise of “preventing defamation of religion.” This has come particularly from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and has produced real distortions in the work of the UN Human Rights Council (see Attacks on freedom of expression go international). Activity has also concentrated on resolutions in the UN General Assembly
Saudi King Abdullah has recently played a leading role in this and has tied it to an “interfaith dialogue” (see Interfaith dialogue and human rights and Interfaith dialogue to fight against human rights). The hypocrisy of this “interfaith dialogue’ is demonstrated by the fact that a recent meeting was held in Madrid – such meeting being impossible in Saudi Arabia because of restrictions on non-Islamic religions! Nevertheless, he managed to organise a special meeting of at the UN in New York on religion (see Critics Say U.N. ‘Culture of Peace’ Meeting Hides Culture of Oppression).
Some Christian and Jewish groups participated in this “interfaith dialogue” – presumably because they also would like to see limitations placed on freedom of expression when it comes to criticism of religion.
Demonstration, riots, attacks on embassies and death threats are also used to attack freedom of expression. Salmon Rushdie (author of The Satanic Verses), Ayan Hirsi Ali (author of Infidel) and others have been the victims of death threats by fatwa. Currently there is pressure to prevent publication of the book The Jewel of Medina.
A particularly cowardly result of such pressure has been the self censorships by book publishers and newspapers in Europe and the USA.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It underpins the fight to establish and protect all other human rights. It must be defended against these attacks.
See also: AC Graylings Articles on the UDHR