If synthesis is to be a major aspect of the coming age, it is useful to look at an important ealier effort at synthesis -that of the Roman Stoics. From the discussions and differeing philosophical traditions found in the Mediterranean world, they developed the concept of the person and then the citizen, concepts which have come down to us as pointed out in this essay marking December 10 -Human Rights Day;
Human Rights: The Emergence of the Person
All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional peculiarities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be born in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993)
December 10th is Human Rights Day, marking the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Among the efforts to codify universal human values in modern times, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the best known and most widely cited, both by governments and civil society. In a world where people from many different cultures and societies come together in increasing frequency, there must be some mutually recognized codes of conduct and mutual respect. In order to reaffirm the Universal Declaration and the other international human rights instruments which flow from the Declaration, the United Nations organized a World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. The “Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action” reasserts the universality of all human rights as the birthright of all human beings. “Human Rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings; their protection and promotion is the first responsibility of Governments.”
The Universal Declaration is fundamentally based on the idea that rights are inherent in the nature of the person. Thus it is important to look at our understanding of the person and the relation of the individual to groups of which he is also a member.
The image of the person was largely formed some 2000 years ago in the Mediterranean world in the debates among Jews, Christians, Gnostics, Greeks, with additional currents of thought coming from Persia and India. There was no single image at the start. Rather, it was the debates among all these complementary and conflicting currents that led to the complex image of the person that we have today. It was the Roman Stoics who brought all these currents together with the image of the person who became the citizen. The idea of the person is a compound of legal rights and moral responsibility. The Latin persona had signified an actor’s mask; later it was applied to the part played by a man in life, finally it came to mean the man himself – as if to say that we can never know a man, but only the parts he p^lays, the mask or masks that he wears.
It was only in the Mediterranean world that there was such a long-lasting and multi-current discussion of ethics, of individual destiny and the relation of the individual to society. In human history, there have been periods when there is a collective response to new challenges and thus new ways of organizing thought and society. Most of the world’s great religious and philosophical systems were formulated at about the same time — 500 BCE: Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism-Buddhism-Jainism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, the Prophetic impulse in Judaism, Socrates-Plato-the mystery schools in Greece, and the Druid teachings among the Celts.
In most parts of the world, this period of intellectual creativity lasted for 100 to 200 years before it was absorbed into the culture of the specific area. Confucianism and Taoism helped provide a common ethic for all the tribal groups of China but remained limited to the Chinese-influenced areas; Hinduism and Jainism remained Indian while Buddhism spread to the edges of the Indian world; Zoroastrianism became identified with the Persian world and spread to Central Asia. While there continued to be intellectual debates within each of these traditions, there was little cross fertilization of ideas.
It was only in the Mediterranean world first with Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic period and then the Roman Empire that multicultural exchanges took place at an intellectual level. Out of these multicultural exchanges came the concept of the person — the individual as separate from a group identity. This synthesis of the person was re-awakened during the Renaissance and further developed during the 18th century Enlightenment. In Europe and North America, individuality meant liberty, progress and individual initiative. The same concepts of the individual person were spread by European colonialism and European systems of education imposed by the colonial powers. Within the colonial educational system, individuals were pulled away from traditional thought and encouraged to develop individual self-awareness, but there were limits to this self-expression set by the colonial regimes.
There are those who say that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a “Western document”. This is only partly true. It is certain that without the crimes of the Second World War, human rights would not have been made a priority of the newly-formed United Nations. When we look at the number of years that it has taken to write and negotiate other UN texts, the two years spent on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights resembles a 100 yard dash. Nevertheless, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not exclusively “Western”. It is the outgrowth of the emergence of the idea of the person spread by Western colonialism but also in reaction to colonialism.
Before colonialism, social allegiance referred to ethnic and religious identity. Colonialism brought in a third level, national identity, but national identity could be gained only by the development of a personal identity as the struggle for national independence required individuals who could propose new approaches, people who organized themselves in non-traditional associations and clubs, who created journals and newspapers and who used the idea of human rights in order to defend themselves against colonial power.
Thus by 1948, the idea of human rights was assumed by persons everywhere, both in independent and in still colonized countries. Human rights as a philosophy was found everywhere but not in everyone. Even today, many people continue living in a ‘group consciousness’.
Today, the image of the person is often imprecise, delicate, and fragile. It is an image which requires further elaboration by better integrating the link between nature and the individual into the image of the person. We need a revitalized sense of who we are as human beings — an image of humanity that is uplifting and inclusive and that better integrates the dimension of nature. Such a new attitude toward nature will go hand in hand with a new, more complex understanding of the person and its potentials.
Human rights are universal because the subject of human rights is the universal world citizen and not the political citizen as defined by state citizenship. Human rights inaugurate a new kind of citizenship, the citizenship of humanity. Human rights gives people the sense that world law belongs to them. It is in this spirit that we mark December 10th as our common standard and goal for action.
*Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens