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Monday, 28 March 2016

One Man's Interpretation of the UN Declaration of Rights

I've been reading a small book on philosophy lately and one of the chapters talks about rights. It splits the notion of rights into three categories - legal rights, which are those provided by a the laws of a state (the right to purchase alcohol at the legal age etc); Moral rights, which are those the we as people have agreed should be afforded one another (the right to a fair trial etc); And human rights, which are the basic rights the we've earned simply by existing (the right to feel safe etc). There are no hard and fast rules on which rights fall into which category, and many can fall into more than one (I would place the right to a fair trial in both the legal and moral categories). When I thought about what constitutes human rights, I decided that the rights to safety and freedom were the only ones that fit that mold. To me, human rights implies a more primitive, instinctive way of looking at ourselves, and anything after that comes from the society we've built up around ourselves. But then the book mentioned the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights - a doctrine set forth after the end of World War II to outline what they believed to be the absolute base level of rights - the starting point for the progression of humanity. I decided to look up the rights myself and I found them very, very fascinating. Here's the 30-rule Declaration, with my impressions added underneath in dot points.

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. 

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.
  • Just the wording of this rule alone makes it sound inspirational. I find a kind of poetry in the notion that this rule, and everything it implies, is rule number 1 for being a part of the human race..

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.

  • They seem to have covered everything here except for sexuality.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

  • This is remarkably similar to the phrase in the American Declaration of Independence which proclaims the three basic freedoms to be life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But does "liberty" take into account all the people that jailed after being found guilty of a crime? What about mentally ill people who are placed into care against their will for safety reasons? Does this law presume a modicum of "common sense" when interpreting it? I hope not, because that's a very dangerous game to play.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

  • I think this is probably the most obvious one, but it's also probably the most violated one.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

  • I stand corrected.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

  • Actually, this is rather unclear. How do you define a person? Read any person's definition on what constitutes a "person" and it will be possible to list exceptions. Is a feotus aperson before the law?Someone in a permanent vegetative state? Someone whose IQ is low enough to register them unable to function in society? And the further we get into the future, the muddier the waters will become. Robots are coming to the point where we can have intelligent conversations with them.. I've seen footage of AI robots expressing desires and hopes for the future, while also musing about their own humanity. Conversely, I've learned that in as little as 30 years, humans will have the ability to download their own consciousness into machines. If that happens, will that person still be a person? If you still find none of this convincing, keep in mind that right now, the American legal system regards businesses as people and affords them the same rights.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

  • I couldn't argue with that. This is basically them saying "No matter who you are, if you're being treated in a way that violates these rules, we'll be there for you.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

  • This is the first example of many where the rules in this document refer specifically to the masculine (...granted him by the constitution...) with our most recent push toward gender equality a huge step towards ensuring that would be to refine our set of the most basic human rights to specify both genders. You wouldn't have to change much, just add "/her" to any appearance of the word "him or just change it to the non-specific "them".

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

  • What exactly do they mean by "arbitrary"? Dictionary.com gives four possible meanings - Contingent solely on one's discretion (meaning one person could arrest another purely because they decided to); Decided by a judge or arbiter rather than a law or statute (Isn't that the point of the European Inquisitorial system of law?); Having unlimited power (That doesn't seem to fit the statement); And Capricious, unreasonable or unsupported (in my opinion the most likely answer).

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

  • So no matter how bad the crime, your right to a fair trial will not be affected. This brings to mind the case of Osama Bin Laden, who when he was finally found, was killed on sight. Many people thought that was the right move, but many more thought that that made us as bad as him and that he should have been put to trial first. I didn't have a strong opinion one way or the other, but this law makes me lean towards the latter. Good luck finding an impartial jury on that one though.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

  • Innocent until proven guilty - one of the biggest sentiments of the adversarial system of law. I like this rule because it presumes fallibility. It acknowledges that there's likely to be cases where the law makes the wrong decision and in those cases, it's better that a guilty person be set free than an innocent person be jailed. That would be a violation of the liberty spoken about in Article 2.
  • This has never occurred to me before, but it makes perfect sense. If you do something perfectly legal now, and then a week later it's made illegal, you can rest assured they won't come for you unless you do it again.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

  • The phrase "attacks upon his honour and reputation." intrigues me (aside from the fact that it uses the British spelling of "honour" and it once again refers to the masculine). I was recently informed that some people I blocked on social media had launched a harsh smear campaign against me. I don't know what was said, but it must have been bad because some people messaged me to ask if I was okay. Is that the kind of thing to which this article refers? Were those people violating a basic human right? Obviously the idea of "social media" wasn't even conceivable back when this was written, but I feel like it's particularly relevant now that it is.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

  • I must admit I don't see the importance of this rule as compared with other rights such as life, liberty and a fair trial. However, I do agree that it's important for a government not to be able to control where a person in their country lives - it's a violation of the liberty clause.
  • That's interesting. One must go through many hoops to be able to enter a country of which they're not a citizen, but they're free to leave any country any time they want.

Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

  • This is a very big deal in Australia at the moment (although less so since our Prime Minister changed in September). Our former Prime Minister, unhappy with his country being the destination of choice for a large proportion of asylum seekers, launched a campaign to stop them from coming. Anyone who did still come was captured and taken to an Island detention center where conditions were disputedly just as bad as what they left. Among the many reasons his opponents had for condemning this policy was the notion that the UN had decreed asylum for anyone who sought it. I knew that was the UN's position, but I didn't know it was written in such succinct terms on their primary list of laws.
  • Interestingly though, the UN puts a limit on it. Presumably, if the reason for seeking asylum is anything less than something the UN would be concerned with, they just leave it up to the receiving country's discretion.

Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

  • It didn't occur to me until now that a nationality was something that could be denied. I've certainly never heard of a government denying someone born in their country or to their citizens the right to belong to that country. This makes me think of people "identifying" as a certain nationality, just as people can identify as different genders and sexualities.

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

  • There's a glaring question here: What about sexuality? This article rests on what the UN defines as "equal". One could argue that the old-fashioned definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman is still equal as it applies equally to everyone. Don't start sending in letters, I disagree with this notion. I'm just being objective. I'd like to see that the UN defines equal marriage rights as being that anyone can marry the person that they want to marry, providing said marriage is consensual. This however raises another problem - what of those people who want to marry their pets or inanimate objects? There are certainly people to whom this applies and in those cases, the issue of consent becomes murky. If we changed the definition of equal to "whomever the person wants to marry", then denying those people may breach that equality.
  • I notice that use of the word "spouses" avoids specifying genders, which is great. But it also fails to specify that marriage is between just two people. Does this article condone polygamy as long as all parties consent?
  • Is this still true? In my own family, we aren't particularly close. We certainly love each other, but for the most part our lives are separate with our own social circles, desires, interests and beliefs. I'm rarely ever even home for dinner. I doubt my situation is unique. I would like for this statement to still be true, but not for any logical reason - purely for sentimental ones.

Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

  • If this is true, then is it immoral to charge people for land? I currently don't own any property - do I have the right to go up to the government and demand some? However, there's a more pressing problem... Do us humans really have the right to "own" land that's been there for hundreds of millions of years before we came to mess around with it?
  • Aside from the objections previously named, I have no problem with this one.

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.

  • Ooh, I love this. "Freedom" is such an emotionally loaded word and I love the ideas of "freedom of thought", "freedom of conscience" and "freedom of religion". I also love the idea of people being able to practice and teach their religions in public. Some people take their "public teaching" too far, but as this article stipulates, that's totally their right.

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.

  • I also love this rule but in the last few years, this concept has been tested to within an inch of its life. If I wanted to say something inflammatory towards race or religion, would I be allowed to do it? If I would, would people be allowed to say inflammatory things about me in response? If this all happened on my own Facebook wall, would I be entitled to delete the responses? Could Facebook shut down my account for having said the inflammatory things in the first place? If I tried to say those things on TV, would the station be obligated to air it? If I was part of an activist group trying to say these things at a public event, do the organisers have a right to place us in a designated area that's far enough away that it no longer affects them? In my own opinion, there are two keys in the answers to those questions. The first is that no one has the right to make others feel unsafe or unwelcome. People can believe and say whatever they want, as long as they stick to that guideline. That goes for both the person with the inflammatory comment and the responding attackers. The other key is that while we're all allowed to say what we want, nobody's obligated to give us a platform on which to say it. A TV station wouldn't have to give airtime to those people they don't agree with. In fact, a TV station could be as biased as they want under the theory that the station's executives are practicing the expression of their own opinions. This does provide a certain inequality, as the people who run media outlets are suddenly given a much louder voice than those of us who don't. But I think that's the price of protecting that freedom of expression and opinion.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

  • The operative word being "peaceful". I don't know exactly what the KKK gets up to during their meetings, but I doubt they're just sitting around, complaining about black people and then going home. And non-peaceful doesn't just mean physically violent - any activity that promotes active intolerance violates this article. But meanwhile, the idea of freedom of association also means we're free to choose who we don't associate with. If these white supremacists don't want to send their kids to schools that have non-Caucasians in it, there's really nothing we can do about that.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

  • This article seems to promote democracy us the only moral system of government. While I take great pride in the democratic process and its idea of everyone getting an equal say (albeit through a representative acting on my behalf), I nevertheless think this article is very unfair to those countries that still run as monarchies. On the other hand, I could have made this claim without doing the full research - are there any countries left that are run purely by a king or queen? All the countries I can think of that still have a monarch also have a president or prime minister that handles the more day-to-day operations of the state. I understand that these leaders are elected by the people.

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

  • This one's very word and I find it hard to wrap my head around, but it seems as if it just reinforces previous articles and adds that every state should provide the means to make them a reality.

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

  • Darn tootin'. Everyone has the right to work and to favourable work conditions. But how would a government "protect" someone against unemployment?
  • The idea of equal pay for equal work... This is the first rule in the document that I actually disagree with. In Australia, we have a minimum wage (which is great). However in certain industries, if you're younger than 21, employers are allowed to pay you less and less on a sliding scale as the employee gets younger. 20-year-olds get 90% of the minimum wage, 19yos get 80%, 18yos 70% and so on. I'm totally in favour of this as it entices employers to hire the younger person, giving them their invaluable introduction into the working world. If two people applied for the same job, one 15 and one 18 (having just finished high school studies), both with no work experience and both demanding the same pay, which one would you want to hire?
  • Part three is simple enough - companies must pay workers enough to allow themselves to provide a dignified life for them and their families. This becomes a lot harder when you talk about casual and part-time jobs.
  • And I certainly agree with part four, although care must always be taken to ensure the union doesn't get too much power.

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

  • Did somebody say five-day weekend?

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

  • I was the beneficiary of sick leave once. I was an employee at KFC as a teenager and I contracted some sort of bacterial infection which may have been contagious. I couldn't work while I had it, so I took a few weeks off with sick leave. It was so comforting knowing I could be looked after financially while I recovered. On the other hand, is "widowhood" still a necessary thing to protect against? Women work now. Either take that one out or add in "widowerhood" in the event that a wife dies. Don't get me started on how this applies to same-sex marriages.
  • This one's interesting - with more and more fathers being the ones to stay home and care for their kids in the first few months, does this need to be updated? Mothers are still the ones that have to carry the children for nine months, birth them and then feed them. So unless science finds a way to allow men to gestate a baby, the mother will always experience some interruption of work. With these things in mind, should we change the article to say "motherhood OR fatherhood"? Or maybe just both?

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

  • Woah - elementary education shall be free? Where did that one come from? I don't know of any elementary school in the country that offers its education for free. Even kindergartens (which Australian children attend at the age of four before starting elementary school) charge people for their time. So how is this allowed? For help on this I contacted the best source I had - my Mum. She revealed that while schools do ask you for money to join them, you can refuse to pay it and they can't turn you away. She knows this because a friend of hers did just that. I won't reveal the reason for her not paying, but the point is she didn't. Her kids stayed at the school up until graduation. When I asked why there weren't more parents taking advantage of this loophole, Mum had the answer for that too. Government funding for a school is quite low. If the school were asked to run on that handout alone, there would be no field trips, no sports equipment, no upgrades to the gym, no new technology in the classrooms... Parents pay because that money goes toward getting their child a better education.
  • How well is this criterion being filled? I don't remember having any lessons on tolerance, respect and self-fulfillment. It was all maths, English and P.E. The same goes for high school. I have a very firm, long-held belief when it comes to schools and what they should be teaching us. But that's a rant for another time. For now, I'm reminded of a quick but hopeful story that happened when I was in third grade.
    Our teacher was reading us the book Matilda and she came across the part where Matilda shows her Dad up by doing some heavy maths very quickly in her head before he can type it into his calculator. Her Dad got angry and exclaimed "No, you're wrong! No one can do math that fast, especially a girl!" The teacher slowed down as she read those last three words, reading it in the pantomime way that one normally would when reading to children. After the chapter was finished and the teacher closed the book, I stuck up my hand.
    "You know that part about Matilda not being able to do maths because she's a girl?" I asked.
    "Yes?" said the teacher.
    "That's sexist," I said. Somehow, despite being eight, I had enough awareness to know that my classmates would laugh that I'd said the word "sex", but that my teacher would understand and agree with me. And that's exactly what happened. The rest of the class giggled and my teacher said "No, he's right!" and spent the next five minutes explaining the basic concept of sexism and why it was wrong. I found those five minutes a lot more useful than the hours I spent on trigonometry later in life.

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

  • I have no idea what kind of benefit the arts have on our world. Absolutely none. But I have a baseless suspicion that if our access to the arts were cut off, the world would be a worse place. Scientific advancement is a different beast, but still totally necessary. Check out this TED talk on a new piece of technology that could make our lives better in dozens of ways.
  • This one's fair enough.

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

  • Or in other words, everyone can belong to an environment where their government and its citizens can provide the means to fulfill the previous 27 laws.

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

  • I'm looking at part two in this one. It seems to specify that people have all these rights and freedoms subject to their own state's laws, providing their own laws are moral and promote order and welfare.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

  • This final article makes me laugh. it's essentially saying "Don't interpret these laws in a way that we didn't intend for them to be interpreted."  That's kind of what I've been doing.


  1. I will have you know that I use trigonometry* every single day, but I don't use sexism one bit. See? The public school system works!

    *okay, I probably haven't done 'real' math in over 10 years

    That part reminds me of a great meme I saw the other day about 'Scumbag America': Makes filing your taxes incorrectly a federal crime; public schools don't teach you the first thing about how to file taxes or how taxes even work

    1. I'm one of those people that has a lot of complaints when it comes to the education system, but no solutions :P

    2. We are too. But then we just say, "The reason we don't have any smart solutions is because we're a product of the public education system." Then we go hit our heads against the wall and drink paint and at that point we feel our point has been made.

  2. This is a very interesting read. I'm surprised they didn't include "sexuality" in the one regarding discrimination. That's been a big issue here in the state of Georgia, where I live. I also find it interesting that in thirty years we may be able to download our consciousness into a machine. That sounds crazy, but it just may happen. Weird stuff!

    1. It's a big issue in Australia as well because we seem to be the only developed country in the world now not to have gay marriage.

  3. We all interpret things how we want or at least how our first impression takes it. That's an interesting reading choice. What made you pick it?!

    1. That philosophy book I mentioned brought it up. I became interested in what their opinion was of what our basic rights are.


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