The Trials of Man

This week, the United Nations began discussions on creating a permanent "War Crimes" tribunal. Here, Vaclav Havel discusses the fundamental ideals on which such a tribunal may be based, the UN’s "Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

PRAGUE - Throughout history diverse texts have played fundamental roles in shaping human events. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one such document but differs from the others in one respect: its impact is not confined to a single culture or civilization. From the outset, the declaration was envisaged as a universal set of principles to govern human coexistence. Such fundamental texts are not easily born. The Declaration of Human Rights was the fruit of the special climate of the post-WWII era, when humanity realized it needed to prevent repetitions of the recent apocalyptic horrors and agree on a fundamental, global code of conduct.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights marks UN documents, hundreds of international treaties, and constitutional instruments in individual nations. It informed the Final Act of the 1975 Helsinki conference, which helped end the bipolar division of the world. For the Helsinki accords catalyzed opposition movements in communist countries, those men and women who took the accords signed by their governments seriously, using them to intensify their struggle, challenging the very essence of totalitarianism.

It is true, however, that human rights are still violated, ignored or suppressed in many countries in the world; sometimes in mild forms, other times brutally. This is not, and should not, be surprising; our complex world cannot be changed overnight simply by passing a declaration.

Despite frequent breaches of its principles the historic importance of this global commitment outweighs the lingering horrors. For the first time in history, there exists a valid global instrument that holds up a mirror to the misery of this world: a universal standard with which to compare the actual state of affairs and in whose name we can act to combat injustice. Since everyone has subscribed to this standard, few venture to criticize it as such. Those who scorn human rights face an historical novelty: the hypocrisy of their country’s signature on that declaration.

Unfortunately, massive violations of fundamental human rights remain a reality: Genocide in Rwanda, killings in Chechnya and Bosnia, the situation in Tibet, North Korea, Burma, Cuba and today in Kosovo. Backed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we can confront these threats to life, freedom and dignity, or at least identify them. Indeed, the special "War Crimes" tribunal for Bosnia at work in the Hague derives its powers from the declaration.

Why do human beings enjoy human rights? The answer is something deeper than because they are enumerated in a contract among people who found it practical to articulate and guarantee their rights. Of course, the Universal Declaration takes the form of a contract or covenant, like hundreds of thousands of other laws or regulations. This covenant, however, derives from notions or preconditions needing no explanation.

Take the concept of human dignity. It permeates all the fundamental human rights and human rights documents. We find this so natural that we see no point in asking what human dignity actually means, or why should humanity possess it; nor do we inquire why it is practical for us all to recognize it in and for one another.

The deepest roots of what we call human rights lie beyond and above us; somewhere deeper than the world of human covenants. They derive from a metaphysical realm. Although many fail to realize this, human beings-- the only creatures fully aware of their being and mortality, who perceive their surroundings as a world and have an inner relationship to that world -- derive dignity, as well as responsibility, from the world as a whole; that is, from that in which they see the world's central theme, its backbone, its order, its direction, its essence, its soul -- name it as you will. Christians put this simply: man is here in the image of God.

Although the world is now enveloped by one single global civilization, this civilization is based on co-existence of cultures, religions, spheres of civilization. More and more often, we witness clashes between these traditions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many times, alleged contradictions are simply ignoble pretexts by autocrats who seek to legitimate evil by pointing out the "otherness" of their cultures. On other occasions the incongruity is real, and the standards developed by the Euro-American world are perceived in all sincerity as alien creations that can be respected, not inwardly embraced.

Some find the impulses behind the Universal Declaration too secular, too materialistic, claiming it pays little regard to the higher authority that is the source of all moral imperatives and the rights derived from those imperatives. This is incorrect: Western human rights standards are, in fact, a modern application of Christian principles. Seen from the outside, however, this may not appear so -- and things might be even worse if these rights were seen in that way, because then they might be regarded as religious imperialism under a civil cloak.

One viable course is open to us if these rights are not to be seen as alien in the non-Western world. It may even help those in the West inclined to lose sight of the spiritual dimension of their values and of the metaphysical origins of the rights we claim, and thus regard documents like the Universal Declaration simply as good business.

The primeval foundations of all religious systems contain, in different forms, the same basic principles, the same moral imperatives. Various religions differ tremendously in accentuation, in spirit, in character and in liturgy. But deep down we find the same fundamentals -- the same call for humility before that which is around us and above us, for decency and solidarity; the same reference to the memory of the universe where all our actions are proven for their true worth. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights encompasses these truths because it springs from that universal spiritual notion: of mankind’s responsibility for the whole world.

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