Wednesday, December 25, 2013

UN Declaration of Human Rights - The Preamble


I have decided to analyze the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I will indulge myself in no prefatory remarks, preferring to get right to the task.

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,"
The opening sentence of the Preamble makes clear that all humanity possess equal and inalienable rights.  The specific nature of those right are not, as yet, specified.  Therefore, some assumptions will have to be made until such time as greater specificity may be encountered.  First, however, let us examine the definitions of "equal", "inalienable", "right", and a few other basic terms.


18. a just claim or title, whether legal, prescriptive, or moral
19. sometimes, rights.  that which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc.


1. not alienable; not transferable to another or capable of being repudiated: inalienable rights. 
inviolable, absolute, unassailable, inherent.

1. as great as; the same as
2. like or alike in quantity, degree, value, etc.; of the same rank, ability, merit, etc.
3. evenly proportioned or balanced
4. uniform in operation or effect: equal laws.

6. a demand for something as due; an assertion of a right

7. an assertion of something as a fact
8. a right to claim or demand; a just title to something


9. property law

    a. the legal right to possession of property

    b. the basis of such right

    c. the documentary evidence of such right: title deeds

11. law
    a. any customary of established right

    b. a claim based on such a right


1.  guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness

2.  done or made according to principle; equitable; proper

3.  based on right; rightful; lawful: a just claim.

4.  in keeping with truth or fact; true; correct

Based on these definitions, we may conclude with certainty that the rights to which the sentence refers are just and absolute.  That is to say, they are made based upon correctly reasoned principle and may not be circumscribed, disparaged, violated, denied, repudiated, or infringed, save by one whose equal claims are being threatened in an immediate and unwarranted fashion.  

In practical terms it means that no man, group thereof, acting singly or severally, as such or under mask of label, may demean, disparage, or in any way trespass upon the equal just claims, which is to say the equal rights, of another individual or group thereof for any reason whatsoever save in defense of self and property from death, dismemberment, destruction, or other real harm.

This is the meaning of the opening sentence of the Declaration and we shall lean upon it as the standard by which the enumerated articles shall be assessed and judged.  

So far, the document is looking reasonably well constructed in terms of meaning.  However, there remains the question of what, exactly, are these rights to which the opening sentence refers?  They are not specified here.  We shall, therefore, have to assume they will be made explicit in the coming passages.

Moving on:

"Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,"
Here we see the beginnings of reference to actual, enumerated rights.  There are, however, some problems.  To wit, thus far no irreducible basis is cited for the existence of these purported rights.  Therefore, the sentence constitutes an attempt at proof by assertion, which is invalid and therefore no proof at all.  This does not, however, imply that the assertions made therein are false, but neither do they establish their truth.  Nor do they define what constitutes "freedom of speech and belief", and while the truth of the assertion may be well clear to many of us, what of "freedom from fear and want"?  Let us forgo for now the fact that this stands as yet undefined.  We may, however, compare the semantic nature of this purported right with that of "free speech and belief".

The right of freedoms of speech and belief are positive rights.  That is, they assert the right to act positively.  You may speak and believe as you please, both of which are positive acts, whereas any right to be "free from" is negative in nature.  A negative right means is that one entitled to be free from unwanted outside interferences or influences.

For example, the right to privacy as guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States is a negative right that forbids anyone from intruding upon the private matters of another uninvited.  It is a proscription upon all against trespass and such is the fundamental nature of all negative rights.

Given the well established general validity of negative rights, we may now set our focus to the specific: "freedom from want and fear".  It should be no great stretch of credulity to agree that most people wish to be free from want and fear.  Therefore, the assertion of the right seems valid and agreeable, so far as it goes.  However, it can be seen readily that it does not go far enough.  What are the metes and bounds of "want" as employed here?  Does one hold the right to free from want for, say, a corporate jet?  A 300 foot motor yacht?  From which wants are we entitled to be free?  The sentence is opaque on this question, and is therefore severely and fundamentally problematic in its chosen construction.

As with "want", "fear" also encompasses a vast plurality of possibilities, not all of which are fundamental, nor are they universally shared by all people.  From which of the nearly endless litany of potential fears are men entitled to be free?  For example, is one entitled to be free from his fear of spiders?  If not, then clearly the use of "fear" in the sentence is overly broad.  If yes, the implications have endlessly radiating effects upon the entire human population, not to mention that of spiders.  

If we agree that even a single one of us holds the negative right to be free from his fear of spiders, let us call him Harry, he can be said to hold just claim not to be beset by that fear at any time or for any reason.  If we acknowledge this right as properly Harry's, it may be strongly argued that the rest of humankind is thereby obliged to preserve him from his fear through positive action.  The logically absurd, yet valid, conlusion is that the only way to possibly guarantee Harry may be free from his fear of spiders would be to eradicate all spiders from the planet.  Forgetting the impossibility of such a task and the endless cost to achieve the goal were it otherwise, not to mention that this is but a single item on the list of all possible fears, even its accomplishment cannot perforce guarantee that Harry will remain free of his apprehensions.  Perhaps he does not believe that all spiders have been wiped out and that one may jump out from behind the next lamp post and bite him. 

I trust you see the basic problem enshrined in the assertion of these two nebulously specified and vastly over-generalized negative rights?  Were we to accept the premise of them as stated, and took them seriously, we would be perforce obliged to attempt to make good on every want and fear imaginable because the negative rights of one man imply a positive duty by all humanity to respect and act such that the right is maintained intact.  If Harry is acknowledged as holding the negative right to be free of his fear of spiders, the implication is that the rest of humanity is obliged by that virtue to furnish him with a circumstance that guarantees an absence of fear.

One may argue that his entitlement to the state of freedom from fear does not imply a positive duty for his fellows to ensure his security.  This is, however, incorrect because if he has the right to be free of his fear of spiders, then he is entitled to that freedom, meaning he can demand it.  But to whom would Harry make such a demand, the spiders?  That avenue of redress is clearly moot and therefore invalid, prima facie.  Will petition to owls provide remedy?  Elephants?  No creature beside his fellow men could possible entertain such an endeavor, and therefore it would fall to his fellows at least to try.

Likewise, if Harry has the right to be free from want of a LearJet, someone, somewhere, is obliged to provide him with one.  This implication cannot be escaped once the premise is accepted as true.  This is why the expression of a right must be sufficiently explicit and narrow such that we do not end up accepting absurdity as truth.

Conceptually speaking, the differences between the brand of negative right as asserted in the Declaration and those in the US Constitution are fundamentally that the latter recognizes the positive duty of all men to abstain from acting in certain ways, whereas the former imposes a positive duty to act positively.  It is as simple as the difference between "thou shalt not" and "thou shalt".  While both are negative rights, one is satisfied through positive action while the other through negative.

Not to place too fine a point on this, but let us return to Harry briefly and his rights, real or imagined.  We entertain two negative rights: to be free from fear of spiders and that of his privacy.  In the former case, his negative right implies a positive duty of the world to act positively in pursuit of the goal of providing him with a fear-free environment.  In the latter case, the negative right to privacy implies a positive duty to refrain from acting in ways that would constitute violations of that right.  In the former case all are required to act and in the latter, to not act.  This is a fundamental difference and it is the factor that renders his right to be free from fear invalid and his right to privacy very much the opposite.

"Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,"
So far as this statement goes, it is good.  It could use some definitions, but if we assume a reasonably universal presumption of common understanding of the words therein, we may regard this as minimally sufficient for a preamble.  It says that because people may rebel against unjust treatment, a fact borne out by our long history of tyrannies, and that by implication rebellion is a bad thing, rights should be carefully protected.  The implication, however, is unclear as to whether it is rebellion that is undesirable because it is presumably directed against government "authority", the fact that it almost always results in death, mayhem, destruction, and misery, or both.  It may be fairly safe to assume the latter, but given the potential significance of such a document, such questions should not be left open to interpretive guesswork.  Once again, a greater specificity is in order even if here the foul is relatively small.

"Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,"
 Again, vagaries.  Who says this is essential?  By what standard do they judge it so?  What is their authority for pronouncing it to be so ostensibly for the entire world population?  What does it mean to "promote"?  The term as generally taken implies no employment of force, yet we have been treated to endless spectacles of political "promotion" at the ends of guns.  What defines "friendly relations"?  Just as so-called "free trade" has absolutely nothing to do with free markets, "friendly relations" as offered here may well in actuality have nothing to do with one's own conception of what that should mean.  Far too many times have we been treated to the semantic chicaneries of dishonest and dishonorable men who seek to gain at the expense of others as they redefine "up" as meaning "down", "left" as "right", "evil" as "good".

Beware of the concussion of language ineptly or malevolently used.

"Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,"
Who are "the peoples", exactly?  Does this refer to all the populations of all the member states?  Perhaps to their representatives?  Speaking only for myself, I can say without equivocation or other reserve that neither have I reaffirmed the stated faith, nor have I authorized any agent or other third party to do so on my behalf.  The use of "person" here is also vague.

"Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,"
Marginally acceptable, but the lack of specification of "rights" reduces this sentence to mostly gibberish.   Universal respect for and observance of human rights means nothing without sufficient understanding of what defines the claims in question.

"Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,"
Common understanding by whom?  All men or just the UN representatives?

At the very least, there should have been a statement qualifying the meaning of the body of this preamble as being contingent upon definitions to be included elsewhere in the document.  Thus far, the Declaration is constructed either carelessly, ineptly, or with purposeful vagueness.  In any case, the work speaks not well of its authors, for the most part.

"Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction."

As with the rest, marginally acceptable as far as it goes, but failing to go sufficiently far to achieve minimal clarity, correctness, and perfection.  "Progressive measures" raises a very red flag.  Is this a general term or is it political jargon relating to "progressivism"?  A clear and unequivocal answer to this question is centrally important to assessing with precision the position expressed.

And what of non-member states?  Is it the UN position to leave them to their individual wills or will the UN "promote" its agendas there as well?


As we can well see, the construction of the preamble to the Declaration of Human Rights is fraught with imprecise language.  Because of this, it is almost impossible to discern meanings that can be pinned down firmly.  At the very least, this fact renders the document as fundamentally meaningless, largely due to the overly broad assertions and the complete absence of any definitions of terms.

Do the insufficiencies of the preamble spring from and unpublished agenda, or simple and innocent carelessness and/or linguistic ineptitude?  Neither is it possible to tell based on the reading alone, nor is it terribly relevant.  What we do know for certain is that the document, well intentioned as it may be, is thus far inadequate to the point of being grotesque.  I will add, however, that from my personal point of view I find my credulity stretched a bit too far to accept that an organization such as the UN, for which language competence is a centrally vital factor, could innocently publish a preamble so violently rife with flaw as is this one.  This fact should place one on high alert to the possibility that something foul is afoot here.

Having justly and competently raised a list of questions and exposed the profound structural weaknesses embodied in this preamle, I will take my leave.  In future installments I shall address the 30 articles of this Declaration in like manner as we search for the truth underlying its construction.

Until next time, please accept my best wishes.

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