This is written as a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt. She is not as well known as she ought to be, and not as well revered. I revere her, because she fought for the recognition of what she called “human rights”. But the world loves a winner, and she was not a winner. In the end, not enough of us believed in basic rights for all humans. All her efforts came to naught.
Her memorial is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed as a Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution in 1948. What she did was persuade the UN member-states of the day to commit themselves to acknowledge and respect a list of defined “basic rights” for all humans. No mean achievement.
It was a first. All previous lists of basic rights had applied only to specific tribes, castes, classes or nations. The US Bill of Rights applied only to US citizens as then defined, the Rights of Man only to the French, the Magna Carta only to the English nobility, the Ten Commandments only to the Israelites. (“Thou shalt not kill” did not apply to foreigners; hence all the slaughters of Canaanites and what-have-you reported in the Books of Moses.)
Eleanor’s Universal Declaration was formulated in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials of German nationals and allies. The idea of a universal standard of behaviour was a new concept in international law. For the first time, national laws were accepted (in the strictest theory) as being subordinate to the Declaration whenever they were incompatible with it.
I was just following orders and I was just obeying my country’s laws were dismissed as illegitimate reasons for doing nasty things to people. Killing ethnic minorities (Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, etc) was now “a crime against humanity”. So was torture; so was imprisonment without a fair trial. Above all, so was waging wars of choice, on the grounds that wars give cover to all kinds of atrocities.
After a nod of acknowledgment to a notional spirit of universal brotherhood, the first “human right” listed in the Declaration is the right to life. There was nothing in the resolution about chemical weapons or nuclear weapons or any other sort of weapons. All that UN member-nations undertook to do was to recognise no distinction in the worth of human lives, regardless of race, nationality, etc.
It failed from Day One, of course. How could it not fail? Tribal and national loyalties are always paramount. Mrs Roosevelt should have had the wit to know that. The human DNA is not designed to spurn loyalty to one’s own kind. All humans believe, consciously or sub-consciously, that they are exceptional – and their families, home communities and nations. Self and patriotism trump the brotherhood of man, every time.
Does any Westerner think it’s worth the death of one single member of his own family or home community to stop the chaos in the Middle East? Of course not. I once read of a bumper-sticker at the time of the Iraq invasion, which asked “WHY CAN’T EXXON SEND ITS OWN DAMN TROOPS?” It made sense to me, but it never caught on.
Today there are patriotic young gamesters in air-conditioned offices who are paid good money to wipe out foreign villagers at the press of a button once or twice a day. Is it a good thing that our boys aren’t being killed and mutilated, and “the others” are? Well, naturally. Only anarchists and communists would even doubt it. I mean, surely.
It’s been interesting, watching the human rights experiment, and I am sorry it never got off the ground. A world without respect for foreigners’ rights is a world forever at war, and that bothers me. I have grandchildren, who may one day find themselves targets. (They live in Norway, and Norway has lots of oil. More oil than Syria, actually. Uh-oh.)
In the age of drones, foreigners (Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and their modern equivalents) can be slaughtered without the slightest personal risk to the slaughterers. That is tribalism gone mad.