On the 70th anniversary of the Universal Human Rights Declaration.

Collegium Novum, Jagiellonian University, Cracow, December 8th 2018

Giulio Ercolessi, European Humanist Federation president

vent 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 their grandparents and great-grandparents born in the same European state where my 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 than 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 commonplace in the intellectual history of the relationship between the two – we should both have learnt from our history that the endeavour for nation building and national independence is not necessarily synonym with that for individual freedom and individual rights, as our patriots thought, especially in that previous and more innocent period of that struggle, when Poles fought “for our 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 citizens”.

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 on human 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 ours like their ancestors, actually in the end fought just for ours, i.e. to liberate us Italians and other Western Europeans, together with the Anglo-Americans and the antifascist partisans.

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 remedy to previous downfall and insanity.

Even in the most precociously liberal countries, the formation of what we have been calling so far the Western 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 inclination of every political, traditional, religious, bureaucratic, social or economical power to confront and overrun its imposed limits. Freedom of conscience arose from persecutions and religious wars; freedom of the markets from limitations to development during the Ancien Régime.

Not a steady triumphal march. The preconditions for the development of individual freedom were first provided by the birth of the modern idea of the individual in the late Middle Ages, much later by the hard-won achievement of a limited freedom of conscience, first in restricted areas of Europe and in the religious domain alone. Further later, individual freedom expanded to other domains, through hard and often bloody confrontations, step by step leading to political freedom, freedom of the markets, democracy, the system of constitutional checks and balances, the independence of the judiciary, the judicial review of ordinary legislation, equal rights and equal social dignity and protection from discrimination on the basis of religion, political opinions, gender, race, 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 Europe. Mussolini’s prediction that in a matter of years Europe would have become “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 even led to WW2, and together with the foundation of a new world order they wanted Human Rights to be the cultural banner of their commitment: a banner that was hard to totally refuse in principle also for the new totalitarian power, that of the Soviet Union, even if they every day trampled on every human right at home and in the occupied countries alike.

The inevitable price to be paid for the adoption of the declaration was that its nature would not be legally binding: the Declaration is not a treaty, simply an international standard, as “ Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for, and observance of, human rights 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, that the first enunciation of the basic principle of a new liberal era had had since John Locke stated that «every man has a property in his own person». That principle, first, at least de facto, meant for the male, adult, white, mostly well-to-do, protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, native citizen, is in fact now the more and more obvious generating principle of every universal right.

Step by step translated in a multiplicity of further international treaties, the principles of the Declaration became positive international law. Some scholars even think it can be considered today directly biding per se, having become part, they believe, of the customary international law. And when 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 became considerable assets in the hands of dissenting citizens. The communists, like all totalitarian powers, had largely underestimated the civilizing power of the rule of law.

And even today, sometimes even the leaders of the most authoritarian populist movements, after seventy years, feel at least compelled to pay lip service to 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 being de facto universal.

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. And an alternative model is at the horizon, promising prosperity without freedom, development without individual dignity, and claiming sovereignty to deny freedom.

One century and one month after the end of the first attempted collective suicide of Europe, almost three quarters of a century after the second one, seventy years later, our main commitment as Europeans should be the same as that of the authors of the Declaration: «Never again, nie wieder, jamais plus ça, mai più, nunca más – and, if I may dare – nigdy więcej».



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