Nation & World

Rights champion Goldstone speaks

4 min read

The ‘peace philosopher’ talks about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In human rights terms, Richard J. Goldstone, the 70-year-old veteran of South Africa’s highest courts and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, has walked the walk and talked the talk — chiefly by having a role in a number of this generation’s most important humanitarian events.

Nearly 20 years ago, Goldstone chaired a commission in South Africa charged with looking at violence and intimidation before 1994, the year of the national election that broke the back of apartheid.

Not long after that, he was chief prosecutor of the United Nations’ criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Almost a decade ago, he chaired an international independent inquiry on Kosovo.

And Goldstone — a recipient this year of the prestigious MacArthur Award for International Justice — was just named “The Hague Peace Philosopher” in the Netherlands, where starting in April he will set to work on a new convention on crimes against humanity.

So it is apt that last week (Nov. 5) he delivered the first talk in a new Human Rights Distinguished Lecture Series sponsored by the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies. (On hand at Tsai Auditorium were about 60 listeners.)

And it is apt that the subject of his lecture was the legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a groundbreaking document signed by the United Nations General Assembly in the shadow of World War II. It turns 60 years old on Dec. 10.

The document was extraordinary even then, said Goldstone. Only eight of the member states abstained, and all regions of the world were represented. “It needs to be emphasized again and again,” he said. “This was not a Western document.”

The UDHR was a political document, however. It was painstakingly drafted in 85 separate sessions and subject to 1,400 separate votes on the wording. But “the important principles are there,” said Goldstone, “and have survived.” (The one thing lacking, as we see today, he said, is a formal acknowledgment of the right to sexual orientation.)

Goldstone acknowledged that the world’s first human rights document came into being because it was never intended to be binding — that “it was an aspiration” and not a law.

Despite that, the UDHR “remains an important beacon, shining a light from the 20th century into the 21st,” he said. (A sign of its modern relevance, he added: The document is available in 360 languages — 100 of them African.)

More powerful, said Goldstone, is the idea that the UDHR was a direct influence on the new constitutions of emerging states — a “gold standard” of basic rights, with the idea of universal human dignity at its core.

In South Africa, as early as the Freedom Charter of 1955, the U.N. document was “the bible of present leaders,” he said, including Nelson Mandela.

In apartheid-era South Africa, “‘human rights’ was literally a swear word,” and a pathway to “treason and evil,” said Goldstone. But in 1994, white South Africans saw they would soon be a political minority — and scrambled to agree to UDHR-inspired human rights guarantees in the new constitution, adopted in 1996.

The UDHR inspired other documents too, said Goldstone, including one he had a hand in writing: the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, commissioned by UNESCO and drafted at a 1998 conference in Valencia, Spain. It outlines the universal duties that governments and individuals have — “a mirror image,” he said, of the universal human rights outlined in 1948.

Despite the work of 100 nations, the document never went anywhere, said Goldstone — in part because it called for nuclear disarmament and for complete sexual equality. The nuclear powers of the world balked at the first, and conservative Islamic nations balked at the second.

The so-called “Valencia Declaration” might see international daylight yet, said Goldstone, who chaired the group that drafted it. Until then, it’s one more example of the multiple inspirations of the UDHR.

Spin forward to 2008. The issue of torture has stripped the United States of its moral leadership, he claimed, and so has the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where prisoners have no means to assess their fate and no knowledge of how long they will be imprisoned.

“If anything constitutes mental torture,” said Goldstone, calling upon his visits to “thousands” of apartheid-era prisoners in South Africa, “it’s detention without trial.”

To be fair, “there’s no country in the world that does not violate the rights of its people,” said the veteran jurist — but he called on the United States, just the same, to recoup its “moral power.”