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On the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is often presented in civics curricula as the advancing global substitute for the Constitution. However, the former is in fact at odds with the latter, as Pope Benedict’s comments on the declaration showed.
The pope was certainly right to point out that the declaration needs to be seen as deriving authority from a transcendent truth. Otherwise it’s just a utopian vision arising from the will of man. But it is worthwhile also to point out that the vision of the Universal Declaration is internally contradictory, since the political rights it advances can come into conflict with the economic and social rights it also advances — the right to housing, food, clothing, employment, standard of living, etc. In fact the social vision it espouses has in large part been attained by many of the semi-socialist countries of Europe, which also increasingly downgrade the importance of political rights and are in the act of giving more and more of them over to the European Union.

The Preamble to the Universal Declaration calls for “it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.” But the American idea is to guarantee political rights that will allow people to work on the sub-political level to fulfill their social and economic needs in largely a free market context, and of course to help those less able to fulfill them. To put every human need in terms of “rights” diminishes the all important non-political elements of culture and makes everything a matter of government.
Also, the ultimate source of the Constitution is the people of the United States — governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. But the ultimate authority of the Universal Declaration is the United Nations itself — a huge, corrupt, unaccountable bureaucracy. As the Declaration says in Article 29: “These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.” These distinctions should be part of civic education.

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