On 10 December 1948, 70 years ago, the widow of the former US President, Eleanore Roosevelt, solemnly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the UN. The USA, which had already threatened the world with the atomic bomb, also signed it. The day has been celebrated since 1948 as International Human Rights Day.
In 1945 the world was no longer the same. After more than half a century of imperial power politics, following the admired example of Julius Caesar, with large-scale planning across people and peoples, after unspeakable genocides and millions of displaced persons, after the first atomic bombs that foreshadowed the horrors to come, and after more than one hundred and fifty million deaths, the peoples stood shaken in front of the self-created fields of ruins and the remains of their cultures maltreated by the global power frenzy.
In an effort to save future generations from such horrors, after a long struggle they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 as an expression of their moral and legal conscience, shaken by the unspeakable suffering.
Today we commemorate this act with respect, but also with deep thought. It corresponded to the deepest desire of the peoples of that time, who had to pay such a high toll of blood. For the soldiers, who often returned home after a long captivity, the war was not over. Countless is the number of the fathers of my generation, for whom the nights became torture, because they had to continue to wage war in their dreams until the end of their lives, and of our mothers, who were left alone to explain to their children the mental damages of their husbands. Uncounted the number of our fathers, conscience-stricken over their deeds, but who had been so shamed by the victors by the fact that the people, who had first been seduced into war by the most diabolical tricks of propaganda, were also collectively found guilty of war – that they remained silent.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights cannot be erased. It was and will remain their immortal deed to have declared in their Article 1, for the first time in the history of mankind, human rights as a pre-state right for all human beings, not only for one national territory: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
The decisive word in this sentence is “born”. Law is born with every human being. It is not society that confers these rights on man. He comes into the world as a bearer of rights. Thus, is the state of birth of the species man, his human nature given at birth, his being as man or creature – however one wants to call it. His nature is to be the bearer of rights. And to be a bearer of rights means to be a person from birth.
It is on this anthropological basis that the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights are built. The social, economic and cultural rights of participation are based on them. And finally, the last articles of the Declaration guarantee the right of all people to a national and international order in which human rights can be realised.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its reference to the state of human birth, was not bound to any theological condition. It formulated the natural-law existence of pre-state rights for all human beings, irrespective of their culture, nation or religion – which, however, could be affirmed by all cultures, nations and religions as the basic human substance of a just peace. It was the answer to the power politics of the twentieth century, no matter from which camp perpetrated. In 1948, everyone of good will understood that this was the legacy of the two world wars.
The Declaration of Human Rights “expresses the minimum of natural law which transcends all religions, cultures and traditions and which is indispensable to establish a universal order of peace [...]. This morality can also be presupposed and recognized by atheists and has often found even more emphatic support from them than from the Church in the history of the Enlightenment.”1
The history of the 1948 Human Rights Declaration begins with resistance against early modern colonialism. The year 1492 marked the beginning of the bloody conquest of America by Spain and Portugal with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church – a church in power, which had the shift towards human rights and democracy, catholic social teaching and cooperativism yet ahead of it. The conquistadors wreaked terrible havoc in America. In his harrowing eyewitness account the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484/85–1566) depicted the terrible plundering, enslavement and annihilation of the American Indians.2 Grown out of the philosophy of late scholasticism, the School of Salamanca created its natural law doctrines by addressing this injustice. The power-hungry and greedy conquistadors justified their genocide by arguing that the Indians, because not being baptised, were no legal subjects, with whom one could conclude contracts, and consequently, they had no rights to govern themselves. Francisco de Vitoria (1492/93–1546), a close friend of Las Casas by whom he was informed about the atrocities committed by the conquistadors, was commissioned by Emperor Charles V with drawing up guidelines for the proselytising of the American Indians. In his subsequent reply to the conquistadors, Vitoria declared “that human beings are by nature principally equal and free”.3
Although not being the first to formulate the idea, Vitoria thus anticipated Article 1 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Between Vitoria and 1948 there lies a struggle for the recognition of the inherent rights of human beings that lasted more than 450 years.
The School of Salamanca’s key concern was that the right to life and liberty, the dignity of human beings was not limited to the members of a denomination or race, but belonged to every human person simply by being a member of the human race. Within the Catholic Church this idea marked the beginning of a gradual moving away from a “church in power” towards the word of its founder: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”4
The struggle to achieve this aspiration is not over yet – quite the reverse.
Above all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also a response to the nihilism of broad sections of the European intelligentsia. Thus, it was also the hope for a renaissance of natural law, which can be studied for around 20 years after 1945.
The great inhuman ideologies since the middle of the 19th century had paved the way for the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century “by departing from the question of man as man”. Because they all preached “the farewell of man, the dehumanization of man,” as the philosopher Hassan Givsan remarks.5 Sophie Scholl’s brother Hans Scholl therefore said during his interrogation by the Gestapo:
“I consider that in Germany between 1918 and 1933, especially in 1933, not so much the mass of the German people failed politically, but especially [...] the intelligentsia. Although academic culture and specialization in Germany developed to its full bloom in all areas of intellectual life, precisely these people were unable to answer the simplest political questions correctly. Only for this reason, it is understandable that mass movements with their simple slogans could drown out any deeper thought. I felt that it was high time that this part of the civil society to be most seriously reminded of its political duties.”6
Reflecting on Human Rights today, we would do well to remember also Hans Scholl’s legacy.
Based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the peoples made concluded further international pacts, which have translated natural law thinking into general international law. The general international law was subsequently adopted by the states into their respective national legal systems as directly applicable positive law, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966.
Based on natural law thinking, the political enlightenment created the European state model of the constitutional state with its three pillars: separation of powers, human rights and democracy, which, as in the Swiss model of direct democracy, could get together with the cooperative movement. Martin Kriele states:
“The political enlightenment was natural law theory. It was based on the nature of man as a human being, not as a Catholic or Protestant, as a Christian or a Heathen, as a European or Asian, as a freeman or slave, etc. Its question was about the conditions under which people can work together, peacefully and friendly. The answer was: by putting themselves in the legal situation. This means, to say it with Kant that people and states mutually recognize each other as equal and restrict their freedom according to general laws so that the freedom of one can ever coexist with the freedom of all. By doing so, they subordinate their animal-biological nature to their rational nature and thus overcome the principle of the stronger, the faster, the smarter, the more brutal, the more unscrupulous. At the same time, they create the freedom in which every human being and every people can determine themselves in order to realize the best predisposed possibilities, work together fraternally, and to keep peace with one another.”7
Similarly, Ernst Fraenkel also states:
“The risk of organising a heterogeneous society in a pluralistic state could and can only succeed if the awareness of the validity of a natural law as the basis of legitimacy of any positive law is maintained.”8
The beginnings of the modern state lie in the basic idea, which is handed down initially from ancient Greece. Peace by the sword alone is not yet true peace. Peace must be a just, secure peace. Man must use his reason and be guided by human feeling, measure the law in the state on a pre-state scale, against the nature of man, and adapt it to it. Political action thus approaches justice. Thus, the Greeks opened a new epoch of public policy thinking. Already Aristotle developed the basic structure of the modern state with its three pillars (1) democracy, (2) separation of powers and (3) human rights. It has not changed until today. With the ancient Greek natural law began the 2500 years long history of the emergence of the power-separating democratic constitutional state.
With his monopoly on the use of force, he was the historical alternative to the struggle of all against all, to anarchy, law of the jungle, and the law of the stronger – to power politics of every colour. He categorically demanded of all rival power groups (the nobility and clergy in the 16th century) to keep peace under the umbrella of law. The “civil condition” it has created was the model of legal equality, which could overcome the class division of the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the religious divisions and feudal order of earlier centuries.
The basic experience of man in the state of war of all against all, as it had its terrible climax in the Thirty Years’ War, is the fear of being killed. The state thinkers of that time called this state “natural state”. They did not mean that man was a born predator, but that he becomes a predator when he lives in anarchy without a state. The nation state is the concrete institution that overcame the constant religious or civil wars. His first and most important foundation was the Westphalian order, which grew out of the peace of Münster and Osnabrück in 1648. The means by which civil war and fist law, and with it the fear of death, were overridden, was the monopoly of all power in the hands of the State, “whose power is superior to any other power, and who is therefore able to check the power which private individuals use against each other to restrain the horrors they inflict on them by the horror that emanates from them.”9
The monopoly on the legitimate use of force is based on the following fundamental idea: The enemies of the war of all against all “agree to surrender their weapons to the state in order to abolish the mutual threat, to use it as a guarantor of their security and to submit to it. The state, and it alone, now has the right to exercise physical force. [...] The people [can not and will] no longer carry out their conflicts with their fists. Renunciation of violence and obedience make the citizen.”10
Above all nobility and clergy were meant, who like all citizens in this model were placed under the monopoly of force. That this did not go smoothly, is another matter. This model of the state “reflects historical reality [of the early European modern era]: the birth of the modern state from the suffering of the civil wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. The state in its modern form [...] is the institutional overcoming of the civil war. It establishes civil peace by raising the monopoly of legitimate physical violence and depriving citizens the right and power to be judges and bailiffs on their own account.”11
This state peace order doesn’t know any worse evil than death. Their purpose is the protection of life, physical integrity and freedom. “He can not offer personal glory and patriotic fame as compensation for life’s devotion. Nor can he refer to heaven as the reward of earthly suffering. Transcendental truths of salvation and religious goals of salvation have lost their legitimacy power they had had in the political order of the Middle Ages.”12 This model doesn’t only exist long before the deadly nationalism. Its basic idea and purpose is precisely the banishment of nationalism, of the theocratical state and the power state.
The state with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force lifts the fear of the citizens against each other. But thereby it becomes the object of the fear of the citizens itself when it is seized by a frenzy of power. This is the meaning of the human rights: the fundamental and human rights derived from natural law and the legal system, based on it, were always meant to protect the citizen from a derailing of the state’s monopoly on the use of force and from the violence of its citizens, a fragile entity that must be lived consciously and, moreover, is only imperfectly developed in many of the today’s states. “And yet political thinking didn’t find any way to go back behind it without slipping into chaos.”13 This state model denies all other state purposes except the protection of life and freedom. Particular interests of races, classes, religions, denominations, nations, ethnic groups, languages, ideologies, etc. are not the purposes of the modern constitutional state with separation of power.
“This is the meaning of the human rights: the fundamental and human rights derived from natural law and the legal system, based on it, were always meant to protect the citizen from an derailing of the state’s monopoly on the use of force and from the violence of its citizens, a fragile entity that must be lived consciously and, moreover, is only imperfectly developed in many of today’s states.”
Human rights aimed at protecting the individual from the state becoming aggressive! What has remained of the hopes that were set in 1948 and afterwards in the historic achievements after the Second World War outlined above?
The United States were playing a double-cross game long before 1948. They disguised their twentieth-century global power and financial imperialism with “democracy” and “human rights”. In the same year when the US President’s wife proclaimed the Declaration of Human Rights, George Kennan, head of the Planning Department in the State Department, clearly rejected them and referred them to the world of day-dreaming:
“Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. […] In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; […] We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. […] We should cease to talk about vague and – for the Far East – unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratisation. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”
With this quote Armin Wertz begins his book “Die Weltbeherrscher” (The World Rulers, CC), published in 2015 by Westend Publishers. The “first complete chronicle of all US operations in independent states”.
Benjamin Franklin did not see the Indians as inferior “savages” but studied their federal form of government: “The Iroquois League inspired Benjamin Franklin to copy it when he planned the state federation,” John F. Kennedy wrote in the preface to Willam Brandom’s “American Heritage Book of Indians”. But the following generations of white immigrants “again followed the ideas of the bigoted Pilgrim Fathers”. Only twenty years after their arrival, they had formulated their ideas and claims of power: “1. The Earth and everything on it belongs to God. 2. God may give the earth or any part of it to His chosen people. 3. We are His Chosen People.” And now it went one after the other, Wertz describes: Already the “most modest independence fighters around George Washington” wanted to advance the conquests from the thirteen east coast states up to the Mississippi. Thirty years later, Thomas Jefferson already dreamed of the Rocky Mountains as the western border. Forty years later, the Congress was already talking about the conquest of the whole continent, “from the Isthmus of Panama to the Bering Strait”. And in 1912, US President Taft said, “the whole hemisphere will be ours, in fact, because of our racial superiority, morally it already belongs to us today.” This meant the American continents from the North Pole to the South Pole! In 1985 there were still more than twenty Indian tribes living in the USA, whose members had no American citizenship. The US military influence in the form of vassal states has expanded worldwide. On 320 of the 400 pages Wertz lists in brief sections the almost countless US-American attacks on other nations and states between 1794 and today. On each page of the book an average of two to three wars, military interventions, murders, gross but also subtle interferences in the affairs of other states. The US drone attacks between 2004 and 2011 alone fill another fifteen densely printed pages, only a few lines per murder! Disillusioned, he states: Only in eleven cases, including five wars, have the US declared war on another nation in these 200 years! For 200 years unleashed striving for power of a state whose founding fathers created the first constitutional democracies, theoretically grounded on the most valuable state-philosophical substance of European natural law. The retrospective view raises concern by clearly showing how these approaches, especially after the Civil War, were rapidly overrun by the striving for power and the vain thinking of belonging to the favoured few. Wertz does not really describe anything new. It is his merit, however, to present an overall picture of what happens to a state when it does not curb the violence between the citizens, the law of the jungle, the arbitrariness of the fittest, the striving for prestige and power, the power of money, but on the contrary declares it to be the “liberal” ideal of “god’s own nation”. The US is only the most obvious example.
How much legitimate hope did not emanate from the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, 70 years later, we are further away from it than ever before in post-war history. The US is perhaps the most tragic example among the nations. Think of the enlightened natural-law ideas of the founding fathers and their fate. After 1948, what state in the world did not contribute in one form or another to this departure from 1948 and became dependent on the US American elites and their global networks? Switzerland, the only direct-democratic state in the world, is also going through this real test.
This perspective on the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows one thing abundantly clear. Human rights must be lived, otherwise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will not function.
Revolutions have never been able to give an answer to this question. Any political change must start with the individual and his education. The question of how human rights can be lived touches on the old idea of popular education and education of the people: Political freedom needs the moral education of the individual as a conditio sine qua non.
Poets of all times have tried to anchor morality in people’s hearts through their art. With Wilhelm Tell, Schiller has written one of the most radiant examples of how man can experience the truth of human rights in his own heart by witnessing the action on the stage and thus being able to have a more human effect in the imperfect world. Pestalozzi and others created the idea of a general education of the people, as without such an education freedom and human rights cannot be lived. Alfred Adler, the founder of individual psychology, took up this cultural stream: “To Heal and to Educate”. Man should find his way out of his irritated striving for prestige and power through education and self-education. This is the only way he could resist the seductions of power politics. Depth psychology has created a new foundation for therapy, education and training through its deepened understanding of the inner life. After the Second World War, the individual psychological education work of Friedrich Liebling and his student Annemarie Buchholz-Kaiser also built on this foundation.
Errors in history, wrong decisions against better knowledge or due to lack of knowledge have always had devastating consequences in the history of mankind. Worse, however, are inhumanities that occur in full knowledge of the consequences. What answers can we today, 70 years after 1948, give to the question of mankind: Where does it come from and how can every human being develop the ability to live what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states in its 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”. This is the question that life is demanding from us today as urgently as ever, and we will be asked by future generations what answers we have given. •
1 Kriele, Martin: Die demokratische Weltrevolution und andere Beiträge. (The democratic world revolution and other articles) Berlin 1997, p. 15f.
2 compare Hanke, L. The Spanish struggle for justice in the conquest of America. New York 1949
3 Kriele, Martin. Die demokratische Weltrevolution. München/Zürich 1988, p. 23
4 Galatians 3, /28. compare also: Colossians 3, /11 und 1. Corinthians 12, /11–13
5 Givsan, Hassan: Eine bestürzende Geschichte: Warum Philosophen sich durch den «Fall Heidegger» korrumpieren lassen. ( An alarming story: Why philosophers are corrupted by the „case Heidegger“) Würzburg 1998, p. 10 and 14.
6 Interrogation protocols, Munich, 20 February 1943, Federal archive Berlin, ZC 13267, vol. 2
7 Kriele, Martin. Die demokratische Weltrevolution und andere Beiträge. Berlin 1997, p. 15f.
8 Fraenkel, Ernst. Das amerikanische Regierungssystem. (The American governmental system) Opladen 1960, p. 345.
9 Isensee, J. Das Grundrecht auf Sicherheit, (The Fundamental right of security) Berlin 1983, p. 3
10 ibidem p. 3
11 ibidem p. 4
12 ibidem p. 5
13 ibidem p. 5
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