Opinion & Features

Rights need more than declarations

There is a campaign to add ‘the right to die’ to the Declaration (Getty)

70 years after their publication, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights remain up for debate

Seventy years ago this week, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was published, and its clarion call of basic human rights for all – starting with the right to life and liberty – has become the basis of much international law and practice.

The declaration’s 30 articles were decent, moral and humane: that rights are held regardless of colour, creed or ethnicity; that we have a right to freedom from torture, to education, to the presumption of innocence, to freedom of expression, to peaceful organisation, to food, shelter and housing for ourselves and our families.

Yet Catholic thinkers were not altogether approving of this 1948 conception of rights, an idea founded in the atheistic French Revolution. It was really Pope John Paul II who advocated rights to uphold ideas about human dignity, and rights against totalitarian states such as
the former USSR.

Today, there are many suggestions about amending or adding to the UN list of rights – including the “right to reproduce”. But how can something which may depend on the diktats of nature be claimed as a “right”? And isn’t it rather cruel to tell a woman – or a man – who is infertile that they have a “right” to reproduce? The “right” to die is another anomaly, although now much demanded. We are compelled to die: rights don’t come into it.

The UN declaration was worthy in aspiration, but it’s clear that some of the rights have not been delivered – and perhaps never will be. No state can guarantee a right for every person to choose their work, or even the right to own property.

And how about balancing rights with duties? Only in the penultimate Article 29 does the UN mention that we also have “duties to the community”. Rights are often taken for granted: but for every right there is surely a corresponding responsibility.

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Neil MacGregor is a renowned art curator and author of the bestselling Living with the Gods. Though he doesn’t count himself as a religious believer, he stresses the importance of faith for most people down the ages. “The secular West is often inclined to write off religion as superstition – something old-fashioned,” Neil McGregor said in last week’s Spectator, speaking to Mary Wakefield. “But belief systems play a part in holding a society together.”

Individual spirituality and personal meditation cannot act in the same way, he says. “I think the growth of the notion of individual spirituality is one of the reasons that makes it hard for the [secular] West to understand religion.”

He mentions the way the Afro-American slave population “survived with its own dignity thanks to a communal religion”. Indeed, the “negro spiritual”, as it was called, was one of the ways in which faith – and hope – were sustained in the face of suffering and injustice. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen / Nobody knows but Jesus” is one of the most poignantly uplifting lyrics of the genre. When the Saints Go Marching In is among its most cheering songs.

Despite the secularism of our age, MacGregor thinks Christmas has been remarkably resilient in retaining and transmitting the Christian message. I can only half-agree with this.

As Christmas looms, I’m tempted to temporarily join one of those strict Protestant sects who consider that the whole eating-and-drinking festival has become far too pagan…

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Christmas Eve in Britain is launched by beautiful carols from King’s College Choir at Cambridge, sung by an all-boys choir, starting mid-afternoon.

But the renowned diva Lesley Garrett says that it’s time the choir admitted girls on an equal basis. Some people claim that the singing voices of boys and girls differ in timbre. Personally, I can’t tell whether a young choir is composed of all boys, all girls, or mixed, but some experts insist that a boy soprano’s voice has a unique quality.

The Catholic writer Ysenda Maxtone-Graham has made a good debating point about retaining the boys-only rule for this choir (while many other choirs are mixed). Boys have only a short time in which to sing soprano roles: once their voices break, their chance is gone; while girls can continue singing in this register indefinitely. So perhaps it is understandable that boys be allowed this special niche for themselves.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4