On the 70th anniversary of the Universal Human Rights Declaration.
Collegium Novum, Jagiellonian University, Cracow, December 8th 2018
Giulio Ercolessi, European Humanist Federation president
Event organised by the Polish Rationalist Association, Jagiellonian University, Koło Naukówe Studentow Filozofii UJ, Rewersy Kultury, with the patronage of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 of the European Union. (Video of the first part of the event here. In Polish, with the exception of this contribution, in English with consecutive interpretation in Polish )
Yesterday, while coming for my first time to
Cracow, I couldn’t help
but thinking that many of those attending this event today probably had
grandparents and great-grandparents born in the same European state
own grandparents were born. Cracow and Trieste were both –
and both very
reluctantly – part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until one
century and one
month ago. And Poles certainly had more reasons to reject the situation
the then prosperous and flourishing multilingual port city of Trieste.
But, even if we focus on the previous period of
the struggle for
national independence of Poland and Italy – which is almost a
the intellectual history of the relationship between the two
– we should
have learnt from our history that the endeavour for nation building and
national independence is not necessarily synonym with that for
freedom and individual rights, as our patriots thought, especially in
previous and more innocent period of that struggle, when Poles fought
freedom and yours”, and, in the newborn Italian state,
monuments were built to
celebrate together the “unity of the fatherland”
with the “freedom of the
We learnt that nation states may become free,
in the meaning of being formally
sovereign in the international community, and at the same time trample
rights and individual freedom.
So much so, that a few decades later a large
majority of Italians accepted
the utterly “independent” and sovereign rule of the
fascist party; and Polish
soldiers that thought that they, too, would fight for their freedom and
like their ancestors, actually in the end fought just for ours, i.e. to
us Italians and other Western Europeans, together with the Anglo-Americans and the
In fact, like most of the achievements of that
period, the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights was not the outcome of a joint
triumphal march of the then dominant European nations, rather the
previous downfall and insanity.
Even in the most precociously liberal
countries, the formation of what we have been calling so far the
political civilisation was since
the beginning the outcome of an ever more comprehensive fight against
authoritarian traditions and beliefs, and had to face the natural
every political, traditional, religious, bureaucratic, social or
power to confront and overrun its imposed limits. Freedom of conscience
from persecutions and religious wars; freedom of the markets from
to development during the Ancien Régime.
Not a steady
triumphal march. The preconditions for the development of individual
were first provided by the birth of the modern idea of the individual
late Middle Ages, much later by the hard-won achievement of a limited
of conscience, first in restricted areas of Europe and in the religious
alone. Further later, individual freedom expanded to other domains,
hard and often bloody confrontations, step by step leading to political
freedom, freedom of the markets, democracy, the system of
and balances, the independence of the judiciary, the judicial review of
ordinary legislation, equal rights and equal social dignity and
discrimination on the basis of religion, political opinions, gender,
nationality, ethnic origins, age, disability, sexual orientation, etc.
Most of all,
the Universal Declaration came after many democracies had fallen into
authoritarian rule long before the Nazi occupation of continental
Mussolini’s prediction that in a matter of years Europe would
“either fascist or fascistised” had fallen short of
becoming a reality.
At least the
leading powers of the West seemed to have learnt the lesson. The
authors of the
Atlantic Charter wanted to avoid the disengagement that in the end had
to WW2, and together with the foundation of a new world order they
Rights to be the cultural banner of their commitment: a banner that was
totally refuse in principle also for the new totalitarian power, that
Soviet Union, even if they every day trampled on every human right at
in the occupied countries alike.
The inevitable price to be paid for the
of the declaration was that its nature would not be legally binding:
Declaration is not a treaty, simply an international standard, as
States have pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the
Nations, the promotion of universal respect for, and observance of,
and fundamental freedoms”, as in the text of the preamble.
As a result, no vote against, and just eight
abstentions: Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland,
Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Ukraine and Yugoslavia.
Yet, the principles of the Declaration proved
the same capacity to produce
ever more profound effects on the ever changing problems of our time,
first enunciation of the basic principle of a new liberal era had had
John Locke stated that «every man has a property in his own
principle, first, at least de facto, meant for the male, adult, white,
well-to-do, protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, native citizen, is
now the more and more obvious generating principle of every universal
Step by step translated in a multiplicity of
treaties, the principles of the Declaration became positive
Some scholars even think it can be considered today directly biding per
having become part, they believe, of the customary international law.
the totalitarian regimes that had signed the Declaration, on the assumption that no foreign
power could ever force
them to comply, started to weaken, those treaties and declarations
considerable assets in the hands of dissenting citizens. The
all totalitarian powers, had largely underestimated the civilizing
power of the
rule of law.
today, sometimes even the leaders of the most authoritarian
movements, after seventy years, feel at least compelled to pay lip
some of its basic principles.
So, should we say today “Well
grubbed, old mole”?
Probably not. We hold our values and
principles to have a universalistic vocation, but they are far from
The enemies of human rights are
lifting up their head again. The effect of the vaccination of the 20th
century is weakening. New forms of religious fundamentalism are raging.
alternative model is at the horizon, promising prosperity without
without individual dignity, and claiming sovereignty to deny freedom.
and one month after the end of the first attempted collective suicide
Europe, almost three quarters of a century after the second one,
later, our main commitment as Europeans should be the same as that of
authors of the Declaration: «Never again, nie wieder, jamais plus
ça, mai più, nunca más –
and, if I may
dare – nigdy więcej».
Files released on this site by Giulio Ercolessi are licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Italy License .
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.giulioercolessi.eu/Contatti.php.