THE UNIVERSAL RIGHT TO BROTHERHOOD
By Bernard Henry
As a Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) in Consultative Status with the United Nations (UN) and accredited with the UN Human Rights Council, the Association of World Citizens has always stood up for human rights everywhere in the world, all human rights, whether civil, political, economic, social, cultural or others, such as the more recently recognized rights to development and to a sound environment.
Since the beginning of this decade, the global yearning for human rights has been more visible than ever before. But the many violators to whom the people of the world have had to stand up – national governments, multinational corporations, non-state political groups, whether armed or not – have been openly dismissing human rights as mere political claims pro se, denying these may ever be a universal prerogative officially recognized in international law.
Sometimes repressive governments or other entities even claim to be acting in the very name of human rights, accusing their critics and opponents of being themselves human rights offenders.
It looks like everybody is now claiming human rights for their sole benefit, totally leaving out others and viewing human rights as a zero-sum game – my rights or theirs, it can’t be both. That is completely out of line with the concept of human rights advocacy.
The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since 1948 the cornerstone of international human rights law, makes it clear that effective legal protection of human rights is essential “if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression”. Even though some people may think of human rights as an overly “divisive” issue to deal with, ignoring or rejecting human rights makes it impossible for any person, government, or other to sensibly hope to achieve any peace or progress for their own enjoyment.
Article 1 of the Declaration is even more explicit about it:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Brotherhood – that is the one word that counts, for that is just what human rights are all about.
Caring for one’s fellow human being. Valuing another person’s life, liberty, and safety like one’s own. Wishing well on others rather than thinking of one’s own life as an inescapable, permanent fight against everybody else. That is what it means to live “in a spirit of brotherhood”, and accordingly, to respect human rights, starting with the most essential of them all – the right to brotherhood.
Although it has become fashionable to antagonize others while citing human rights, a conduct like that makes no sense, as the defense of human rights shall be by essence inclusive, never sectarian. In recognizing the right to brotherhood as an inalienable right to be guaranteed for everyone, one naturally comes to recognize all other rights enshrined in the Declaration and other international human rights instruments – civil, political, economic, social and cultural.
In line with this principle, the Declaration ends with three articles that recall the primacy of the right to brotherhood over all other rights:
“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”
Obviously, this means everyone has a right to peace, and more obviously still, there can be no peace without brotherhood.
“(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”
Clear as day. Rights are there to be enjoyed within the human community, “in a spirit of brotherhood”, thus neither apart from the community nor against the community.
“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.”
The strongest, most logical possible conclusion to a universal declaration of rights – rights can never be claimed, let alone used, to do any harm to anyone under any circumstances. In other words, if you don’t recognize the right to brotherhood, you just cannot claim any rights at all.
All legalese aside, that is just what Albert Schweitzer was already saying when he developed his concept of Reverence for Life (Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben). In his 1923 book Civilization and Ethics, Schweitzer outlined the concept in these words: “Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”
At a time when there was no real global political or legal institution in existence, the closest thing to it being a League of Nations largely built on wishful thinking and with no lawmaking powers, Schweitzer was already asserting, in the plainest possible manner, the universal right to brotherhood.
The greater the “reverence”, as Schweitzer said, for the right to brotherhood, the harder it gets for oppression and injustice to settle down. Whether fighting a dictatorship, confronting racist politicians, demonstrating for decent wages, teaching poor children or providing a remote community with access to clean water, it all comes down to stating loud and clear this one universal claim: We are citizens of one world, humanity is our family, and as human beings, we all have a right to family life with our brothers on earth.
Bernard Henry is External Relations Officer of the Representative Office to the United Nations in Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.