Speech at the Conference of Human Rights and Religious Freedom in Europe

By David Mancini

The 1988 Conference of Human Rights and Religious Freedom in Europe was a significant convention concerning human rights violations, specifically in Eastern Europe. At the conference, Western delegates put pressure on the Soviet Union and other satellite states to respect the religious rights of their citizens.[1] The conference seemingly made headway judging on the dialogue between eastern and western state representatives.[2]

John Peters Humphrey was one of the guests invited to address the conference, which he decided to use as a platform to discuss the successes and failures of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The purpose of this paper will be to examine Humphrey’s discourse on the effectiveness of the UDHR in practice. In his speech to the conference, Humphrey, one of the UDHR’s original authors, addresses the disparity between providing a definition of rights and actually protecting those rights. I argue that the UDHR has defined transnational standards for protecting the rights of individuals without offering an effective mechanism of enforcement. Humphrey’s speech is very significant as it addresses the issue of the UDHR’s true efficacy, which still remains relevant today.

Before addressing the content of Humphrey’s speech, it is imperative to understand the setting of this 1988 Conference. From the end of the Second World War to the early-1990s, there was a clear divide between east and west in Europe. The west often represented democracy, capitalism and a reasonable adherence to the UDHR. The east stood in opposition as the Soviet Union and its satellite states represented varying levels of authoritarian, communist governments that were often in violation of their citizens’ rights as defined by the UDHR. The conference was a non-governmental event concentrated on issues of religious freedom in the Soviet Union and other socialist states.[3] The Soviets were loosening their grip on the east through Perestroika and Glasnost- the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.[4] There was a real sense of change felt by those who attended the conference, but anything concrete actually happening relied almost entirely on the Soviet Union’s will to implement reforms. This represents the habitual reality that states will value their sovereignty before anything else in international politics.

Humphrey gave this speech on the fortieth anniversary of the UDHR’s drafting, in which he played a fundamental role. He opens his speech with praise and pride toward the UDHR as one of the most influential documents in humanity’s recent history. The “world law”, as Humphrey refers to it, is something he considers/believes strengthens the status of individuals everywhere while simultaneously weakening the power of the state. This statement is qualified with reference to the importance of individuals understanding and embracing more responsibilities. It is also important to note that the adoption of these rights as “universal” has in many instances been a catalyst to the creation of domestic laws throughout states within the United Nations. Providing individual states with an exemplary model to form domestic laws has been one of the rare examples when rights defined in the UDHR have been effectively protected.

Humphrey checks the benefits of the UDHR by questioning whether or not the declaration is actually effective in practice. His answer is not a straightforward yes or no, but he states that the UDHR is certainly not as effective as it should be. “The General Assembly is not a world parliament; and except in house-keeping matters like the appointment of a Secretary General, its decisions are not binding by international law.”  This substantiates the notion that it is the responsibility of each individual state to decide whether or not to follow the UDHR. All states will naturally value the importance of their sovereignty over international agreements or pacts like the UDHR. This is not to say that states won’t comply with the UDHR, but it does imply that they must be willing to follow and self-enforce the guidelines of such agreements. There is essentially no real effective mechanism to reprimand states that do not comply. Sanctions can certainly act as a mechanism, but Humphrey alludes to the idea that traditional sanctions will hurt the collective within the state more so than the individuals in power who are responsible for potential rights’ violations. He concludes that the most effective sanction is public opinion, which both democratic and authoritarian states are sensitive to.

Humphrey asked questions in 1988 about the effectiveness of the UDHR that are still unanswered today. There are councils and conferences that address and monitor human rights abuses, but there is still no effective enforcement mechanism in place. The truth that human rights are universally defined, but not protected is something that will continue to be an issue as long as a state sovereignty remains of supreme importance.

[1] Bloed, A., and P. Van Dijk. The Human Dimension of the Helsinki Process: The Vienna Follow-up         Meeting and Its Aftermath. Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1991, 178.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.


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