At the close of every great and violent social conflict comes due a bill of rights. Following the barbarism of World War II, the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with the Nuremberg trials, overturned the doctrine, which held sway among Western nations, that there are no rights other than those conferred by states. Individual liberty and the guarantee of a decent and secure life, the declaration proclaimed, were rights bestowed not by blood or borders but by universal human dignity.
From the terrors of the cold war came the hope that the promise of the UN declaration would be fulfilled, that resources consumed by the superpower contest would be put toward human needs and that repression would no longer be tolerated in the name of national security or sovereignty. But more than a decade into our post-cold war world, these hopes remain largely unrealized. While politicians who commit atrocities within their own borders can no longer confidently hide behind diplomatic immunities, the declaration’s hope for the “advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want” remains a compelling but nonetheless chimerical ideal in light of deepening global poverty and inequality and concentrating corporate and military power.
In A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mary Ann Glendon argues for a new, post-cold war interpretation of the declaration’s vision and unfulfilled potential. While stressing the declaration’s ongoing relevance–calling it the “parent document” of all subsequent international human rights treaties–Glendon believes that we have lost sight of the charter’s true significance. The declaration did more than simply add social entitlements to the individual freedoms found in the US Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. By synthesizing individual and social rights in a way that made them mutually dependent, the declaration presented a “vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and guarded by the rule of law. That vision was meant to protect liberty from degenerating into license and to repel the excesses of individualism and collectivism alike.”
But the cold war drove a wedge through the declaration’s “organic unity.” The two superpowers “could not resist treating the Declaration as an arsenal of political weapons: each yanked its favorite provisions out of context and ignored the rest.” The United States and its allies stressed political freedoms, while the USSR and other socialist nations emphasized guarantees to education and healthcare. “What began as expediency hardened into habit, until the sense of an integrated body of principles was lost.” The task at hand, Glendon writes,is to “reunite the sundered halves of the Declaration” and to re-establish the link between liberty and social security.
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Glendon centers her story around Eleanor Roosevelt, whose longstanding support for social justice made her a compelling envoy of New Deal hopes abroad. Following FDR’s death in 1945, she was appointed as a delegate to the newly established United Nations (considering that she probably would not be confirmed by today’s Senate, it is remarkable that then only one senator voted against her) and was elected chairwoman of its Commission on Human Rights, whose first task was to draft an international bill of rights.
As the commission raced against the dawning cold war, Roosevelt’s ability to disarm potentially deal-breaking political and philosophical conflicts proved indispensable. One of her major contributions to the declaration’s passage was to argue for the deferment of enforcement mechanisms, thus giving countries unwilling to compromise national sovereignty an opportunity to support a broad, nonbinding proclamation. Roosevelt’s domestic and international prestige served to contain an increasingly hostile State Department, and she repeatedly used her syndicated “My Day” column to make her case directly to Americans, often strategically evoking FDR’s memory to shore up wavering US support for social and economic rights: “My husband always said that freedom from want and freedom from aggression were twin freedoms which had to go hand in hand.”
A Harvard law professor, Glendon too believes in the interdependence of political freedom and economic security, but unlike the Roosevelts, who knew that the extension of equality would always require conflict, she argues that the best way to achieve both is through consensus.
Glendon is best known as the author of the previous Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, a sharp critique of a legal culture that frames interests and identities in individualistic terms at the expense of community and civic responsibility. She reserves her harshest criticisms for the kind of politics, like that of the pro-choice feminist movement, that is based on the right to privacy, which, in her view, exalts individualism at the expense of community. For Glendon, rights are best achieved when they resonate, rather than clash with, common social values: “Our rights talk,” she has argued elsewhere, “in its absoluteness, promotes unrealistic expectations, heightens social conflict, and inhibits dialogue that might lead toward consensus, accommodations, or at least the discovery of common ground.”
Considering that Glendon has devoted her career to defusing the explosive potential of “rights talk,” it is curious that she would now choose to celebrate Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt firmly believed that the best way to achieve justice was through the expansion and strengthening of the New Deal state. While she may have often used the cant of compromise favored by many of today’s communitarians, she did not shy away from confrontation, according to her biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook (Roosevelt was fond of repeating that if you “have to compromise, be sure to compromise UP”). Cook writes that Roosevelt, closely connected to and influenced by the great early-twentieth-century feminist, antiracist and working-class movements, held an “abiding conviction” that “nothing good would happen to promote the people’s interest unless the people themselves organized to demand government responses.”
A World Made New claims Eleanor as the mother of all third-wayers. Far from the politically and emotionally passionate writer, politician and activist who emerges from the pages of Cook’s biography, Glendon’s portrayal stresses Roosevelt’s pragmatism and her willingness to temper demands for equality out of concerns for a greater social good. While Glendon acknowledges Eleanor’s intelligence and political commitment, she often depicts Roosevelt as a cross between Dale Carnegie and Lucille Ball, whose “legendary people skills” permitted “cross cultural understanding” while her equally notorious cooking ability cemented male bonding among the commission’s draftees:
It was not the food that made her salon a popular gathering place…. John Humphrey [a Canadian member of the commission] recalled one evening when she served “the toughest roast beef I have ever eaten.” On another occasion she beamingly asked [the French delegate] René Cassin to uncork a musty bottle of wine that had been in the cellar of her uncle Theodore Roosevelt. Humphrey… recounted that Cassin “opened it with great ceremony, proposed a toast and we all lifted our glasses. The wine had turned to vinegar. But none of us flickered an eyelash–and Mrs. Roosevelt never knew what she had given us.”
All that’s missing is Desi Arnaz rolling his eyes.
The refusal of Glendon, like many communitarians, to pay attention to power has led her to provide an incomplete account of the origins and limitations of the declaration. Most of the action in her book takes place behind closed doors,amid the bons mots and philosophical sparring of the delegates. Despite references to the fact that following World War II “soldiers and civilians alike had become aware that the way things had been was not necessarily the way they had to be,” Glendon gives no sense that the declaration’s draftees–nearly all of them social democrats of one stripe or another–were responding to real political and economic demands made by threatening social movements.
For instance, while Glendon acknowledges the influence of the Chilean Hernán Santa Cruz, a friend and colleague of Salvador Allende, on the drafting of the declaration, she makes no reference to the fact that he was influenced by one of the strongest union movements in Latin America, a movement led by Communists and Socialists that forced successive governments to create one of Latin America’s most democratic social welfare states. Neither does Glendon mention that between 1944 and 1946, Communist and non-Communist trade union leaders from fifty-three countries held a series of conferences to help secure a role for labor in the new postwar international system. They not only demanded that the UN incorporate economic rights into its charter but requested, yet did not receive, a union delegate in the UN’s Economic and Social Commission.
Glendon’s criticism of both the cultural and moral relativism of a handful of academics and Third World despots, which she identifies as the chief threat to the declaration’s universalism, obscures the real obstacles arrayed against the fulfillment of its promise. While she notes in passing that Santa Cruz fled Chile in 1973, Glendon ignores the role of the United States in the destruction of Chile’s welfare system and the installation that year of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Nor does she note the failure of the United States to support fully the prosecution of Pinochet. (Although Glendon’s book was written before George W. Bush’s assault on internationalism, the installation of John Negroponte as ambassador to the United Nations–as US ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, Negroponte coordinated contra activities and covered up the murderous activity of a Honduran death squad–underscores the shallowness of Glendon’s analysis as to why the declaration’s promise has not been realized.)
In A World Made New, Glendon finds corroborating evidence among traditional societies to support her case against an excessively disputatious understanding of rights. She points out that the UN declaration was more influenced by the social democratic rights tradition of continental Europe and Latin America than by “the more individualistic documents of Anglo-American lineage.” The declaration also better reflects the values of traditional, non-Western societies, with their purported emphasis on reciprocity and obligation, than it does those of the anomic United States. The subject of the declaration, according to Glendon, is not the autonomous individual of Hobbes, Mill and Locke but a person enmeshed in a web of “mutual dependency: families, communities, religious groups, workplaces, associations, societies, cultures, nations, and an emerging international order.” It is “perhaps regrettable,” Glendon suggests, that the declaration framed economic security in the language of entitlements rather than “in terms of a common responsibility,” which “might have resonated better than rights in most of the world’s cultures.”
Richard Wilson’s The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State provides a needed contrast to Glendon’s argument that the potential of the declaration could best be achieved through compromise and harmonization with traditional cultures.
Like the story of Cain and Abel, the history of the UN declaration and South African apartheid are inseparable. Months prior to the commencement of work on the declaration, a multiracial South African delegation led by the African National Congress joined Indian delegates in 1946 to push the UN to condemn white rule in South Africa, resulting in one of the General Assembly’s first decisions limiting the inviolability of national sovereignty. Just months after South Africa abstained from ratifying the declaration in 1948, it passed the first in a series of laws that institutionalized racial rule. In the following decades, South Africa, with its brutal mining economy, white supremacist government and vicious anti-Communism, came to represent the antithesis of the declaration.
After decades of national resistance and international pressure, as the Berlin wall fell, apartheid crumbled. Nelson Mandela left prison in 1990 and, in 1994, became the country’s first president elected by a multiracial vote. The new South African Constitution is a direct descendant of the UN declaration, adding environmental and cultural protections to political and social rights, and extending them to all citizens, regardless not only of race and gender but of sexual orientation as well. Yet the radical vision of the Constitution was dampened when, in negotiations with the outgoing National Party, the ANC settled on a transition strategy that emphasized national reconciliation and amnesty for political crimes committed during apartheid and left largely untouched an economic system that was designed to benefit the white minority.
Like Glendon, Wilson is highly critical of “rights talk.” But where she believes that an inordinate attention to individual rights frays the social ties that are best able to provide humans with security and dignity, Wilson argues the opposite: that the subordination of individual claims to justice in the name of reconciliation cheapens the value of liberal rhetoric. Many political leaders of fledgling democracies, Wilson writes, found in “human rights talk” a way to “create a fully-blown moral-ethical code, to forge a moral unity and to legitimate the new democratic order.” But when it was used to justify not only amnesty for war criminals but also the silencing of demands for economic redistribution, as it was in South Africa, this talk came to represent for many a retreat from the promise of social equality that fueled the ANC’s struggle against apartheid.
Wilson focuses primarily on the work and impact of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Established in 1995 to investigate human rights abuses committed under apartheid, the TRC, in its public hearings and its published final report, told the story of political violence through a narrative of struggle and liberation. Yet it tempered the radical potential of this story with a Christian ethos that both demanded a forsaking of vengeance and insisted on national reconciliation through collective acts of forgiveness. In the absence of either prosecutions or economic redistribution, writes Wilson, this “religious-redemptive” approach, embodied in the persona of the TRC’s chairman, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was the only one that had any hope of “reshaping popular legal and political consciousness” among the majority of South Africa’s disfranchised population.
Not unlike Glendon’s attempt to move our understanding of rights away from conflict toward notions of reciprocity, obligation and community, Tutu repeatedly invoked the African word Ubuntu , which refers to values that supposedly governed African communal life, to argue against prosecutions: “Retributive justice,” says Tutu, “is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative–not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.”
Wilson describes a notion of community at play in the townships that contrasts with Tutu’s Ubuntu , one that is “male and martial, and committed to the values of valor, honor and revenge.” Local courts, armed gangs and activists from the ANC Youth League and African nationalist parties advocate a different, rougher notion of justice, “less concerned with restoration of social bonds than it is with the punishment of wrongdoers who have violated correct values as defined by the community.” The TRC, with its uncompromising language of compromise, proved utterly incapable of working with these local authorities, of establishing mechanisms of conflict resolution that could lead to meaningful reconciliation. In response, many dismissed the TRC as hollow and continued to pursue vengeful, not retributive, justice.
The failure of the South African state, Wilson writes, to take seriously popular demands for justice, to move a desire for revenge toward an acceptance of proportional retribution, has greatly delegitimized human rights in the eyes of many, often the most marginalized, South Africans. There is evidence that soaring crime rates in places like Sharpeville are related to the state’s failure to prosecute human rights violations that took place under apartheid.
A story that appeared last year in the Wall Street Journal supports Wilson’s argument that true reconciliation can come about only through retributive and redistributive justice enacted by a strong state. In the mid-1980s, at the height of the antiapartheid movement, the police shot, tortured and blinded Lucas Sekwepere. After finding some emotional relief in telling his story to the TRC in 1996, Sekwepere, unemployed, impoverished and still blind, believed, wrongly, that the state would pay to remove the bullet fragments he still carries in his face and provide him with job training. Instead he received a check for $700. “Not much,” Sekwepere says, “for someone who has been hungry for 15 years.” “It is easy for me to get cross these days,” he goes on. “Since the commission opened up my wounds, I haven’t heard anything more. Is that justice?”
It is one thing to admit that the ancien régime is still au courant and therefore that it is impossible to prosecute violations conducted in its name, and, as Wilson points out, another thing to mask its persisting power with the language of reconciliation and national unity. But in the case of South Africa, what is the ancien régime? Unlike in Argentina and Chile, where the military still exercised a formidable influence and threat following the restoration of democracy, the ANC had control of the government, the military and the police, and was wildly popular among the vast majority of South Africa’s population. Why could it not execute a legal strategy that was more attuned to the desire of the majority and to the norms of international jurisprudence?
The answer lies to a large degree with the ancien international régime. With the end of the cold war, Third World political and economic nationalism was no longer a viable development strategy. In many countries undergoing a transition from repressive cold war regimes to democratic rule, the primary threat of instability came not from the barracks but from the markets. In South Africa, the ANC and, to a lesser degree, the Communist Party were quick to adjust their strategies and expectations to a post-cold war world, embracing liberal democracy and suppressing larger challenges to the economic system. Whites remain in firm control of the national economy, subject more to the pressures of international capital than to the dictates of the new government.
Tracing the history between the UN’s declaration and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission reveals the ambivalent legacy of the cold war vis-à-vis human rights, a legacy more complex than Glendon describes. While throughout much of the non-Communist world entrenched interests used anti-Communism to beat back threats to their power, in many cases superpower rivalry actually allowed for the fulfillment of many of the rights embedded in the declaration. The civil and economic reforms promoted by the United States, both at home and abroad, can be understood only in relation to its struggle against the Soviet Union. It was not until after the Soviet threat had been eliminated that we saw a full-scale retreat from the declaration’s economic and social provisions, as witnessed by the dismantling of the welfare system in the United States, the weakening of social democracies in Europe and the demise of autonomous models of Third World development. South Africa may have the most progressive constitution in human history, but half of its population–19 million people–lives in poverty and has little recourse to the justice system or other state institutions. Pinochet may now be subject to democratic justice, but the economic system he helped install is as unassailable as was Louis XIV behind the walls of Versailles.
Or is it? The promise of the declaration continues to resonate, not in the flat timbre of transitional governments but in the diverse and vibrant chords of the anti-corporate globalization movement. While having multiple agendas and interests, the groups that make up this movement share all the values Glendon rightly finds in the declaration: human dignity, social responsibility, local autonomy, a vision of individual freedom rooted in social solidarity. Glendon, who hopes the declaration could be an “entryway to a better world,” would perhaps be dismayed to realize how much she sounds like that favorite of WTO protesters, Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, who believes that the task currently at hand is to “create a world in which a better world can be imagined.” If the UN declaration’s promise is to be fulfilled, then Davos may well be our Bastille.
This review was written before September 11. Its optimism has now been drowned by cries for an avenging war against terrorism. It seems as if we have been suddenly hurtled back to a world prior to the Universal Declaration, a world turned old with hatred, militarism and xenophobia. If Pearl Harbor begat Hiroshima, one shudders to think what terrifying deeds the attack on the World Trade Center will provoke. But in the midst of rising blood lust, the declaration’s vision of economic justice, tolerance and freedom is, as we fight for a sane foreign policy, more urgent than ever.