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How should Christians think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

DECEMBER 10, 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is debatably the most important document in the moral, cultural and political history of the world.

Composed in the aftermath of World War II, with the unspeakable atrocities of the Nazi regime still fresh in the collective consciousness of the nations represented, the UN document is a response to the “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”.

The morality of human rights in the Declaration is established firmly and explicitly on the undeniable and inherent dignity and worth of every human being. The Preamble states that the nations have “reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”.

The main thrust of this statement resonates with the Christian theological view of the human being as created in the image of God and therefore as having profound value and worth in the sight of God. This view espoused by the Declaration is also in tune with the Christian ethic expressed in Jesus’ injunction that we are to “love one another just as I have loved you” (John 13:34). In addition, the emphasis on mutual responsibility and communality in the Declaration resonates with Jesus’ command to love our neighbour, powerfully illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37).

As the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor pointed out, the affirmation of universal human rights in modern, liberal political culture is one of the “authentic developments of the Gospel” in modern life.

[For a more general treatment of the subject, see my article in Methodist Message Vol. 110 (8), August 2008, p. 12].

Sixty years after its formulation, the Declaration is under severe attack from different quarters. Postmodern critics of the Declaration reject the very idea of universal human rights that it espouses and promotes because they no longer believe that there is such a thing as objective truth that is accessible to all.

Postmodern multiculturalism insists that all truths – including our concepts of human rights – are cultural constructs that are specific to particular communities. This means that these critics consider the grandiose vision of universal human rights that the Declaration presents as nothing more than a sentimental delusion.

If on one front the Declaration is assaulted by the criticisms of nihilism and extreme multiculturalism, on another it is accused of “cultural imperialism”. The states that reject the ideals of the Declaration have complained that they are in fact the “imposition” of primarily Western concepts of human rights.

To be sure, the formulation of the truths about human beings and their rights that the Declaration promotes has a cultural history. But these truths are not the possession of any one culture; they are truths that all cultures recognise. Therefore, these truths cannot be seen as cultural impositions by an elite group of ideologues. Furthermore, most states that reject the ideals of the Declaration do so because of nationalism, racial pride, ideological dogmatism or political power.

There is yet another challenge to the ideals of the Declaration. As the writers of the Ramsey Colloquium on Human Rights have succinctly put it, “human rights are threatened in the name of human rights”. That is to say, the ideals espoused by the Declaration are threatened by the proliferation of the number of rights and the distorted understanding of these rights. For example, some quarters have promoted “children’s rights”, the right of children to be independent from their parents. Others have lobbied for the right to abortion, or the right to physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia.

The list of rights found in the Declaration is of course not meant to be exhaustive. But it must be emphasised that that list is not an arbitrary collection of unconnected rights either. The Declaration must be read as a whole in order to understand its coherence and the philosophical anthropology that undergirds its concept of rights.

The century in which the Declaration was formulated was a violent one. One needs to think only of that century’s mass-murdering dictators and the staggering number of people who perished under their cruel regimes: Stalin was responsible for the deaths of more than 42 million people, Mao, 37 million, Hitler, over 20 million. Almost a hundred million, and we have not considered Cambodia, Bosnia and the carnage that resulted from the two world wars! Neither have we considered the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people perished in 100 days, and the massacres that took place in Darfur.

“The cry of conscience against genocide,” writes David Hollenbach, “is a negative protest that takes positive form in the affirmation of the dignity and rights of all human beings.” In our violent world, the language of human rights is as close to a moral lingua franca that we human beings are likely to achieve.

As the great philosopher Jürgen Habermas has argued: “Notwithstanding their European origins, in Asia, Africa and South America, [human rights] now constitute the only language in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression and persecution, against injuries to their human dignity.” We must never give up on speaking this language.


‘The Preamble of the Declaration states that the nations have “reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”.’

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.