Historians have estimated the number of people killed in the eleven major wars and revolutions starting with the Battle of the Marne and ending with the bombing of Nagasaki to range from 100 to 150 million people. In the wake of what is humanity’s most murderous generation, the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in December, 1948.
The then-58 members of the United Nations pledged to promote, respect, and observe universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. The world’s democracies made significant progress in the generation that followed. Canada’s major achievements include the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Commitments to the UDHR began to soften globally with the rise of an economic ideology epitomized by expressions such as ‘there’s no such thing as society’ (Thatcher, 1982) and ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ (Clinton, 1992). The mantra ‘trickle-down economics’ pushed governments to pursue UDHR Article 17 (the right to own, and not be arbitrarily deprived of property) as a preeminent right, all but abandoning the UDHR’s leading principle that human beings ‘should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’.
This ideology produce ever-growing inequities in wealth and earnings, and with that spawned a politics of radical nationalism. That trend is growing in democracies around the world; the upswing of demagoguery is a global phenomenon. Canada is not an exception. Earlier this year two neighbouring provinces governed by parties holding to compatible political philosophies plunged into a vicious and bitter quarrel, incapable of civilized discussion. The shift of emphasis from respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms to demagoguery is not a democratic failing. The belief that government of, by, and for the people must invariably lead to equality and fairness for all is rather credulous. Democracy is not one single value. Democracy is a way of organizing a plurality of values. A principal democratic value is reflected in philosopher Hannah Arendt’s notion of ‘the right to have rights’.
Some UDHR articles contain a potential for conflict. Does the right to food, clothing, housing and medical care (Art. 25) impose an obligation on the state? Can the state impose the taxation needed to meet that obligation without offending a person’s right not to be arbitrarily deprived of property (Art. 17)? Some UDHR articles have broad implications (Art. 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person) while others are more specific (Art. 22: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family).
Every one of the UDHR articles depicts a distinct value. It is inevitable that conflicts will arise in the promotion of the values inherent in fundamental rights. How democracy organizes the plurality of UDHR values, how it deals with inevitable conflicts, and how it apportions the burden and benefits depends on how democratic systems are organized and structured. Responding to these conflicts and finding fair and reasonable compromise solutions, is what politics is all about.
We need to rethink the way we do politics. Changing the electoral system is a good start.