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Tribute to Stéphane Hessel

Historian, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Author of {Time for Outrage}

by Caroline Gaudriault, Marion de Baecque

“Man cannot shirk his responsibility to uphold these moral values, because it is these values which guarantee his survival”

Métamorphose II, La Liberté dévoilée Métamorphose II, La Liberté dévoilée   © Gérard Rancinan

Caroline Gaudriault – It was December 10, 1948, in Paris. Fifty-eight countries, the then members of the UN, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a genuinely historic moment.

Stéphane Hessel – There were eighteen of us. Crucially, we were from different countries. There was a Chinese, a Russian, a Lebanese, a Pole. We didn’t want to express a purely Western vision. Every culture and nation was represented. The post-war context played a fundamental role in people’s determination to produce a text emphasising moral values. Luckily, the Commission, set up in 1945, was informed by a utopian vision of a better world. Memories of the horrors and hardships of the war were still fresh in everyone’s minds. It was the right time; it would have been impossible in any other period. There has never been an international legal text as audacious, neither before nor since. For the first time, we included a notion unique in legal history, a notion expressed by the word “universal”.

Caroline Gaudriault – It’s easy to imagine that the trauma of the post-war period and the promises of a definitive end to conflict provided an ideal framework for an audacious approach focusing on the promotion of a sense of brotherhood. And I imagine that the three years it took to write the text was by no means an easy period…

Stéphane Hessel – It’s true that three years is a long time. We started with a short, wonderful, though rather partisan text: Churchill and Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter. The Charter talks about freedom of speech, freedom of religious practice, freedom from fear, and freedom from hunger. Ambitious stuff. Using the document as a springboard, everyone focused on what was of most interest to them. The Americans emphasised freedom of religious practice; the Soviets, who claimed to have put an end to capitalist-style poverty, highlighted freedom from hunger. Since we had survived a terrible war, freedom from fear rang a very loud bell with all of us. Differences in outlook quickly became apparent. Consequently, we took the time we needed to conclude negotiations to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s why the text works. A great deal of serious thought went into it. We used universally acceptable terms. At the time, the Eastern European countries, who weren’t yet enemies of the West, exerted a lot of pressure to include articles about social rights, such as housing and employment. The West insisted on equitable rights: the freedom of the individual. This was added due to pressure from Great Britain, the USA and France. The Soviets, meanwhile, were of the opinion that the State should decide on educational matters, but in the end they relented.

Caroline Gaudriault – All countries put more emphasis on certain rights than on others. In a sense, every country establishes a hierarchy. Can a hierarchy be applied to human rights?

Stéphane Hessel – That was our primary concern. We agreed that no right would take precedence over any other. All human rights are fundamental, inalienable, indissociable. We can’t have effective civil rights without effective social rights. When people are dying of hunger, their interest in democracy is secondary at best. Article 1 comes before Article 20 because it makes the document more coherent, not because it’s more important. We insisted a great deal on the notions of universality and indissociability. Which doesn’t mean that, depending on the country in question, some rights are easier to guarantee than others. It depends on other factors. Some rights can be guaranteed immediately, others require a long-term programme. The right to housing, for example, is a worthy objective. All countries need to do everything in their power to ensure that their citizens have a roof over their heads. The same applies to the right to health. There must be enough doctors to go round. Freedom of speech doesn’t require major preparations and is, as long as the government agrees, immediately applicable. In this sense, there are different ways of managing the implementation of rights, but there is no hierarchy between them.

Caroline Gaudriault – Certainly, but as you mentioned, there were divergent viewpoints from the outset. And even though a considerable number of countries signed up to this universal document, they haven’t all applied its contents in the same way.

Stéphane Hessel – Firstly, no one voted against. There were eight abstentions. The Arab countries abstained because the Declaration states that men and women have equal rights. I’m sure you’re aware of the embarrassment caused by that point even now. The Soviet Union, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Czechoslovakia also abstained because the text defends the notion of total individual freedom, which they regarded as being at the limit of what was acceptable. In spite of the abstentions, the Declaration was considered to have been ratified. And every member state of the United Nations is now committed to following the agenda laid out in the document.

Caroline Gaudriault – Yes, an agenda, a vision … The document mentions a framework of objectives. It’s not a treaty containing a series of obligations. Of course, the universalist sensibility characterising the post-war period and the sense of hope that was so necessary for reconstruction to succeed were vital part to the project. But since governments are quick to forget, we can legitimately ask whether this goodwill has evaporated with the passage of time and whether certain countries habitually reject moral censure out of hand.

Stéphane Hessel – Moral censure counts for very little. Yes, it’s a declamatory text not a legally binding one. But we have the right to criticise any country in the world that violates human rights. We can forcefully tell them: “you have made great play of the Declaration, even incorporating it into your constitution; but consider this a warning”. This has made it possible to set up international bodies with legally binding powers, such as the International Criminal Court. It has also encouraged – and this really is important – the emergence of a huge number of human rights groups and non-governmental organisations. There are thousands of them in countries all over the world working day and night to defend the rights defined in the Declaration. They ensure that governments meet their responsibilities to the people they govern. Since the Declaration, it has become legitimate for citizens to criticise their government and governments in other countries for abusing human rights. This is perhaps the most original aspect of the document. Moral values had never been mentioned in any previous text. And it was the first time that governments, those cold-eyed monsters, had ever really been obliged to respect such values.

Caroline Gaudriault – The Declaration gives citizens an active role. Directly addressed to them, it points out that they not only have rights, but also obligations, and that, therefore, they are responsible agents.

Stéphane Hessel – Yes, the text is not only addressed to countries, but also to citizens. It says that people “should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Thus it is immediately stated that citizens have obligations. And, for the first time, the word “should” is used. But that’s as far as it goes, because the rights mentioned in the Declaration can only be guaranteed by governments. Rights are not guaranteed by individuals. Individuals are social beings who exist as part of society. Next to the word “right” is the word “dignity”. We were able to observe that that was the term which caused the least problems to a Chinese, to an American … the dignity of the human person is a universally accepted concept. Once again, we knew that, unfortunately, it wasn’t always respected, but we agreed to say that it should be. Yes, cynics, inveterate materialists, tyrants all exist … but their thought and actions run counter to the Declaration. In the preamble it is clearly stated that the contents of the text can only be applied in a country protected by the rule of law. The phrase was added so that people were not compelled to have recourse to violence in an attempt to overthrow tyranny and oppression.

C.G. – In terms of the protection of human rights, the Declaration marks a fabulous turning point. Before this document, when people talked about human freedom and the freedom of thought they invariably brought up the moral authority of religion.

Stéphane Hessel – Indeed, in the history of the preceding centuries, a short period of time compared to the long history of the centuries to come, we have often called upon religious authority. But, in this regard, the Declaration simply states that individuals have the right to practice their own faith.

Caroline Gaudriault – It places the rights of individuals above the rights of States.

Stéphane Hessel – And it’s absolutely unprecedented. Once again, it probably wouldn’t have been possible at another moment in history. We owe it to Hitler and other murderous ogres and to ideas that developed in the Second World War.

Caroline Gaudriault – It would seem that crises bring out what is most fraternal in people. But keeping this programme alive as a gaol to be attained will always be a challenge…

Stéphane Hessel – We have to accept the evidence: governments are horribly hypocritical. They are pretty much indifferent to international legal texts and are very good at pursuing their own interests. Israel was founded in the same year as the Declaration, but the values it outlines are far from being applied in the conflict with Palestine. A similar situation pertains in regard to China. International politics is a complex thing. Pressure is being exerted in certain domains, including the death penalty and the invasion of Tibet, but the economic and social progress made by the Chinese is also being recognised. There are often double standards. But we have to say that there is more democracy that there was before.

Caroline Gaudriault – Yes, but, in view of its associations with the West’s Weltaunnshuanng, the term democracy is not entirely beyond criticism...

Stéphane Hessel – I agree. But if we take this term as a starting point, if we consider that the “demos”, the people, are willing to have the last word when it comes to organising society, then we can agree that this is what all societies want. The Chinese are working towards it; the Indians fought for the right to make decisions about how their country should be run; the countries of Latin America have seen their dictatorships transformed into democracies … As we can see, it’s not just a Western view of how things should be. The so called popular democracies also used the word. In fact, they were tyrannical democracies. And they have more freedom now than they did before.

Caroline Gaudriault – You have lived a long life during which you were one of the instigators of these hopes. Do you have the impression that this was a task that humanity has now completed?

Stéphane Hessel – Far from it. Human rights are still not respected in most countries. It’s understandable, because it’s human nature to be egotistical and lack respect for others rather than to adhere to the noblest values. But sixty years is nothing compared to the history of human societies. In spite of everything, I think we’ve made progress. For someone like me, the construction of Europe is a marvellous thing. I remember Europe tearing itself apart. We used to be at each others throats and now we’re united. And then there’s decolonisation. We shudder in horror when we think of the terrible crimes the colonialist countries committed. Society has changed a great deal. Putting an end to Stalinism was quite something. Putting an end to apartheid was quite something too. You can’t say that nothing’s been done.

Caroline Gaudriault – We have to hope that these tragic episodes aren’t forgotten and that they aren’t repeated in a different form at a different time…

Stéphane Hessel – Naturally, history moves on and this is something which has to be taken into account. New challenges have arisen since the 1948 Declaration. We need to elaborate a new programme, following on from the last one, as a matter of urgency. A programme including the question of the damage being done to the environment, an issue which was not on the agenda at the time. We have to take into account new kinds of terrorism and the financial crisis, which is only one aspect of the fragmentation caused by deregulated capitalism.

Caroline Gaudriault – We could say that today, sixty years on, we have an increasing number of instruments with which to defend human rights, including international law courts and IT communications tools. One would have thought that the task should have become easier by now. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Stéphane Hessel – The least hopeful observers see in the globalization of our culture the manifestation of a highly materialistic attitude, shot through with marketing and consumer-led ideologies. Consequently, they argue, moral values are no longer a priority, since everyone lives in his or her own individual bubble. They think that grand hopes and noble ideas have no future. I don’t agree. I know many, many people who campaign, struggle and demonstrate whenever and wherever human rights are not respected. Young people around the world are motivated by fine ideals. We’re now able to form huge networks, something that wasn’t possible before. I was born in 1917, during the Russian Revolution. I can remember having a fervent desire to fight injustice. I can see the same kind of desire in young people today. There is great potential. But it’s true that there are also obstacles to progress.

Caroline Gaudriault – Can the agenda ever be brought to a successful conclusion?

Stéphane Hessel – We shouldn’t be so naive as to believe that the agenda can be brought to a successful conclusion within a short space of time. But alongside naivety there is also hope and conviction. Isn’t that what keeps people going? We have to accept the truth of the proposition that Man cannot shirk his responsibility to uphold these moral values Man cannot shirk his responsibility to uphold these moral values, because it is these values which guarantee his survival.

Interview conducted in Paris’s 14th arrondissement, November 24, 2008

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