15.12.2008 | Sergei Kovalev

60 years in the wilderness: Why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t work


Speech by renowned human rights defender and Head of the Russian “Memorial” Society, Sergei Kovalev to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 2008

The 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a disturbing anniversary. Why is this the case? Does it celebrate the recognition of a great idea, with difficulty, and slowly, yet unwaveringly transforming the world? Or is it the anniversary of a groundless, unattainable dream, pitifully masking everyday harsh reality?  In fact, hypocrisy, deceit, expansion, secrecy, national selfishness and so forth were traditional methods of so-called “Realpolitik” for centuries. They were considered inevitable, and therefore tolerable. That was why neither Stalin’s millions of victims, nor the rise of Hitler, nor the shame of Mussolini –  were not perceived in the world as a mortal threat to civilization, as a challenge demanding an immediate and stern response.

Nonetheless, in the middle of the XX century it seriously seemed as though the bloody nightmare of two world wars, chemical and even more so, nuclear weapons, the Holocaust and other forms of genocide such as Stalin’s deportation of whole nations, had finally convinced the world community of the vital need to build another political construct of the world, based on a new political paradigm. And therefore the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seemed at that time like a clear and sharp turning point in the world political reality, an irreversible beginning of the moral transformation of the world. It was not to be.

If we recall that at the very beginning of the war against Nazism, the allies already declared their aim to be to defend freedom and humanity, rights – those same values which were soon to be called universal. It was asserted that these values are the highest aim of politics. Yet not only the aim, but also the main instrument of a safe and just world. Try to reconcile that blanket, and soon nuclear bombing of peaceful cities, half of Europe, handed over into the slavery of Stalin’s tyranny, hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war handed over to Stalin to the camps and to their death.

And then the epoch-making event – the Nuremberg Trials, for the first time in history declaring to the world that state power bore criminal liability for crimes committed under its auspices. Just one example: The Tribunal for three whole days considered the episode of the accusations against the Nazis over the murder of Polish prisoners of war at Katyń. Thank goodness they didn’t consider this episode proven, seemingly, as a result of bargaining. Yet everybody, to the last participant in the trial, knew exactly who had killed the thousands of Polish officers, and when. At Nuremberg one cannibal tried another cannibal for cannibalism. Nuremberg vividly pushed fine declarations into the realm of political rhetoric.

“Realpolitik” hypocritically uses news phrases, however is not capable of embodying a new political paradigm. They are incompatible. The maxim “the law is outside of and above politics” did not come off, the age-old chain of political hypocrisy drags on to this day, turning solemn promises into tacky clichés, devoid of meaning.

I am convinced that we are experiencing a global moral and political crisis.  Ambitions and “countries’ geopolitical interests” are at the centre of the modern political construct of the world  If anybody could put aside ritual phases and make a current list of universal values, they would have to begin it more or less in this way: “oil, gas, political correctness”. That is the peaceful comfort of international bureaucrats.

The following are the most speaking examples from Russian practice.

We have state terror in Chechnya, including abduction of people, extrajudicial executions, torture and culminating finally in the appointment of a Chechen President from among former bandits. Fundamental constitutional norms consciously trampled. There is no independent justice system, no division of power. There isn’t a glimmer any more of transparent political competition at the so-called elections. Instead there’s an obedient parliament and untrammelled lying by the top people in the state. Ritual lying accompanying us at each moment. . The regime in Russia is illegitimate if only because it is self-appointed, and also because it is consciously and deliberately distorting the Constitution of the country, turning it into a Stalinist type, not intended for being implemented. The Constitution is a mere imitation of democracy.  In total accordance with this are important decisions taken by the regime in critical circumstances when the lives of hostages in terrorist attacks count for nothing. They are at any rate not the first priority of the authorities. If we recall the blowing up of blocks of apartments in the autumn of 1999 played an important electoral role in Mr Putin’s triumph. I am not asserting that these explosions were carried out by the Security Service, there is no proof of that, however the version is highly probably and has not at any rate been refuted by the authorities via the only possible means – an open and transparent investigation specifically of that version in the first instant. And the public are not only entitled, but obliged to express their suspicions of this nature, since our history reminds us of many brutal crimes against the people.

There is no need to prove that this situation in the world is not only immoral and threatens individual human fates, but is mortally dangerous on a global scale. .One cannot endless maintain relative security only through the fear of nuclear destruction – these weapons will slip around and could easily fall into the hands of terrorists. There will always be reckless gamblers prepared to resort to nuclear blackmail. A small, inter-connected world, polluted with our waste, is spending incredible effort and means on arms, armies, spying, protection of secrets etc. This is while any important challenges and problems (social, environmental, climate, running out of resources, and so forth) demand grandiose and solely global solutions, which are at present impossible because of national selfishness, treachery and distrust among countries.  Globalization must not simply be economic, but first of all moral and law-based. Politics, concentrated solely on the struggle of ambitions and interests must be subordinated to values excluding this game without rules. This revolution cannot be achieved by the pressure through force of powerful countries, but only through the strength of the enticing example of prosperity. Is such an incredible development of a political construct of the world achievable? I don’t know. I do know that another line of development will be tragic both for us and those who come after us.

There is no trace of determination in the international community to seriously address these problems. Let’s be honest: at present we are in the power of Realpolitik, affirming customs and traditions, which can only in external appearance be considered democratic procedures. Just two examples.  Take, let’s say, the Council of Europe. A structure specially formed for one single purpose – interference in the matters of member states when there are problems there with human rights. Yet, creating this structure, the founders kindly bestowed upon each other the extremely convenient right of veto. The main body of the Council of Europe, the Committee of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, resolves important issues by means of consensus.  How then can one punish an offending state? There is virtually the same power of veto in the OSCE. Now there is a rule of consensus, minus one. There are daring souls who even speak of “consensus minus two”, however that doesn’t change matters. Worst of all, the same principle applies in the UN. Five permanent members of the Security Council – that’s the main body of the UN. Among them are Russia and China which have remained enemies of democracy. And all five have the power of veto.

However it is clear that it’s not so easy to change the foundations somehow or other propping up the entire building for several hundred years. Try immediately rejecting the age-old reality of traditional politics. That would mean chaos and catastrophe. We face a slow and extremely difficult path. It would seem that this will last the whole of the XXI century. Yet a strictly formulated final goal of this path must stubbornly and openly dominated in political everyday life. In both major and trivial ongoing decisions. Otherwise it will be lost.

As “managed” or “sovereign” democracy is in no way democracy, so is political correctness anything but correct. We need to understand that when congratulate over self-appointees with their “election”, we encourage frauds and future tyrants. And concluding with them agreement about the rights of the individual, filled with high-sounding rhetoric instead of strict measures of control, we doom many to shameless arbitrary rule. They’re frightened of a renewal of the Cold War. What can you say, the prospect is indeed depressing.

Let’s remember, however, that this war was won, and we are still speaking freely here thanks to that victory.

The very emergence of the European Union, the direction of its slow and difficult evolution is some source of hope.

The great President Jimmie Carter once said: “I can’t send a marine fleet to free Soviet prisoners of conscience, but I’ll do everything else.”

It’s everything else that now needs doing.

Persistently, honestly and openly.

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