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    Free and Equal

    Celebrating the 70th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. December 8, 2017 by James Read
    Filed Under:
    Opinion & Critical Thought

    December 10, 2017, begins the year of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It’s something for Christians to pay attention to.

    The 58 countries that were members of the United Nations at the time unanimously signed the Declaration on December 10, 1948. Although it is not much talked about, Canada played a key role in this history because John Humphrey, a New Brunswick native and McGill University professor, wrote the first draft.

    But it is the major political powers who signed the Declaration that made it important. In 1948, the Second World War was barely over. The Allies had won. What had the war been about? Not just economics and territory, although they are both part of the story, but also—and this is not just rhetoric and propaganda—racist and nationalistic ideologies that had blithely treated millions of people as inferior. Ridding the world of these inferiors was supposed to have been a service to the future. How demonic! How important to try to ensure such ideas never got the upper hand again.

    Of course, the Declaration was a political document from the get-go. As a consequence, some of its elements are laughable. How, for instance, can “periodic holidays with pay” (Article 24) be a human right? I don’t think it is. But I can see a country voting for it if it was the cost of getting another country to agree to protect something like the right to freedom of religion (Article 18).

    As a Christian ethicist, I am grateful for whatever political haggling saw the project to completion. Here’s why: fundamental to the Declaration of Human Rights is a moral, not a political, imperative. The very first article expresses it best: “Every human being is born free and equal in dignity.”

    If that seems a truism to you, so obvious that it’s hardly worth stating, realize that even today it is neither true nor obvious to many of the most powerful forces in the world. The morality of human freedom, equality and dignity must still be declared.

    Exactly how it is to be translated into laws and policies and practices and heart-attitudes may never be fully figured out. When I look at the building that houses the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, I think the architect forgot to finish the drawings. And then it dawns on me: that was his point. It’s a point that Christians recognize daily as we notice the continuing impact of human sinfulness.

    The challenge is to not let sin and unfinished business immobilize us. Daily we should pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth and that we would be used by God in that mission.

    Eleanor Roosevelt, who successfully negotiated the Declaration of Human Rights through the United Nations 69 years ago, prayed every night: “Our Father, who has set a restlessness in our hearts and made us all seekers after that which we can never fully find, forbid us to be satisfied with what we make of life. Draw us from base content and set our eyes on far-off goals…. Save us from ourselves and show us a vision of a world made new.”


    Dr. James Read is the executive director of The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg.

    Feature illustration: © Bombaert/

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