Richard Stevens, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., specializes in legal research and writing.
On December 10, 1998, world and national leaders commemorate the birthday of an impostor. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 50 years old on that date. Because Americans know so little about their own Constitution and Bill of Rights, most do not know that the Universal Declaration destroys both the letter and spirit of the Bill of Rights. So when President Clinton declares that the documents are equally great statements of human rights, as he did last year, few people will protest.
The Bill of Rights, the true statement of individual rights and limited government, turns 207 on December 15, 1998. Unless Americans actively celebrate Bill of Rights Day that day, the proximity of the two anniversaries permits the Universal Declaration to shine as an international protector of rights while the Bill of Rights is largely ignored. To borrow from Gresham’s Law, “bad rights drive out good.”
Erasing the Bill of Rights
The Universal Declaration does not require any government to respect any particular individual rights. Instead, it provides, according to the preamble, only a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Its “standard of achievement,” however, practically obliterates Americans’ constitutional rights.
Of the roughly 34 individual rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the U.N.’s Declaration nominally protects only eight. (See Table I.) Five more rights find only partial support in the U.N. Declaration, including the prohibition of bills of attainder, the protection of citizens’ privileges and immunities while traveling or living in other states, and the protection against “arbitrary interference” with privacy, home, and family. Fully 21 other American individual rights disappear entirely. (See Table II on the next page.)
Table I: American Rights Nominally Protected by the Universal Declaration
|Right||Universal Declaration Provision|
|No ex post facto laws||Article 11|
|Habeas corpus (no arbitrary imprisonment)||Article 9|
|Free exercise of religion||Article 18|
|Freedom of speech and press||Article 19|
|Freedom of assembly||Article 20(1)|
|Right to life, liberty and property (“due process”)||Articles 3, 7, 11(1), 17(1), 17(2)|
|Right to public trial in criminal case||Article 10|
|No cruel and unusual punishments||Article 5|
Table II: American Rights Lost Under the Universal Declaration
Two witnesses required to convict person of treason
No punishment of families of person convicted of treason (corruption of blood)
No established government religion
People’s right to form citizen militias
Individual right to keep and bear arms
Prohibition on peacetime quartering of troops in private residences
Probable cause, oath, and particularity requirements for arrest warrants
Probable cause, oath, and particularity requirements for search warrants
Grand jury requirement
No “double jeopardy”
Government compensation for taking of private property for public use
Right to a speedy trial in a criminal case
Right to a trial by impartial jury in a criminal case
Right to a trial in the location where the crime occurred
Right to confront witnesses at trial
Right to require witnesses to appear in court
Right to a lawyer for defense in a criminal case
Right to a trial by jury in a common law civil case
Right to have a single jury decide a case
No excessive bail in criminal cases
No excessive fines
Universal Power to Plunder
The U.N.’s Declaration not only fails to protect core American individual rights; it also enshrines the power to plunder. Frederic Bastiat, the French economics writer, observed that human beings can satisfy their wants either by “ceaseless labor” or by “seizing the product of others.” Government’s proper job, Bastiat said, is “to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of work.” The Universal Declaration runs directly contrary to any notion of a plunder-free society.
By couching itself in the language of individual rights, the Universal Declaration legitimizes the power to plunder. For example, Article 22 declares that “Everyone . . . has the right to social security.” The only way that “everyone” can have such a right is for government to force workers to pay for non-workers’ welfare and retirement funds. So the declared “right” of “everyone” to social security requires that national governments institute schemes of plunder.
Using the device of granting “rights” to “everyone,” the Universal Declaration mandates many such schemes. The Declaration grants:
the “right to work”
the right to “just and favourable conditions of work”
the right to “protection against unemployment”
the “right to just and favourable remuneration . . . supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection”
the “right to rest and leisure”
the “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [the individual and his family], including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services,” as well as health, employment, and disability insurance
the “right to education”
To bestow each of these “rights” on everyone the governments must decide what each citizen is entitled to, how much to spend, what private or business conduct is permitted and prohibited, and then compel the citizens to pay. Massive government intrusion into all facets of human life becomes necessary to implement these “rights” to plunder. After all the systems of compelling and plundering are installed, little can remain of the Universal Declaration’s Article 3 right to liberty and its Article 17 right to own property.
None of these plunder “rights” appears in the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights.
Declaration of Government Rights
Beyond granting rights to plunder, the Universal Declaration gives governments nearly total power to dictate all aspects of human life. Article 28 states that “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” In other words, the people must have a large, intrusive government.
In addition, under Article 26, governments must require each citizen to accept the Universal Declaration’s big-government gospel: “Elementary education shall be compulsory [and] shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms . . . and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”
Article 29 then imposes on all people the duty to serve the “community” within the “social order” envisioned by the Universal Declaration: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” As government defines nearly all of the functions of the community within the social order, including work, leisure, education, and economic decisions, these “duties” are defined by, and owed to, the government.
Devil in the Default
Both the U.N.’s Declaration and the Bill of Rights contain “catchall” provisions. These provisions explain how governments are supposed to analyze questions about rights and powers that cannot be answered directly from the documents themselves. Nothing shows the difference between the two documents better than comparing those provisions.
Amendments 9 and 10 of the Bill of Rights instruct the government to operate within its limited powers and to leave other powers to the people. The Ninth Amendment states: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The Tenth Amendment states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” These provisions limit federal power and leave any unexpressed powers and rights to the local governments and the people.
The Universal Declaration defaults in favor of government power. Article 29, section 2, states that individual rights and freedoms are limited by “due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.” Government, under the U.N. Declaration, defines morality, public order, and general welfare. The limitations on rights are to be “determined by law”—which in the Declaration means determined by the government. But Article 29, section 3, appears to say that the U.N. may override governments to assure that rights are properly interpreted: “These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”
Article 30 is ominous: “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” This Article destroys the right to actively oppose big-government programs. It abrogates the Bill of Rights’ guarantees of free speech, press, assembly, and petition for redress of grievances. Article 30 guarantees governments the right to stop people from opposing compulsory education, taxation, social security, the minimum wage, compulsory “public service,” and any other government plunder program.
The U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights bears no similarity to the Bill of Rights. Americans should reject the attempts to lump the two documents together in one annual “human rights week.” On December 15 of each year Americans should celebrate Bill of Rights Day by learning more about their rights and teaching others. When Americans understand their precious Bill of Rights, they won’t be impressed by the United Nations’ dangerous substitute.
- Since August 1997, 27 state and local governments have proclaimed Bill of Rights Day. Information about the national Bill of Rights Day program is available at www.jpfo.org or (414) 769-0760.
- Frederic Bastiat, The Law (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1950), p. 10.
- See Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson (New York: Arlington House, 1978), pp. 209-210, and Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1970), pp. 817–18, 829.