As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrated a birthday this month, it is worth noting how this document—noble in its original intentions—is often reinterpreted by advocates of a host of issues, resulting in a laundry list of new rights claims and corresponding government responsibilities thrust upon the 193 U.N. member states. Two prime examples of this misuse concern the rights to life and religious liberty, natural rights often sacrificed to any number of social causes.
With regard to abortion, the right to life promised to “everyone” in the Universal Declaration (Article 3) is rarely applied to the unborn, while a right to health or an adequate standard of living (Article 25) has been expanded substantially to include a woman’s so-called right to access abortion services.
Anand Grover, whose full title is Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, has repeatedly made the case that decriminalizing abortion is essential to reducing maternal mortality and achieving women’s right to health. As Special Rapporteur—U.N. lingo for an appointed, and largely unaccountable, expert—Grover recently caused a stir among some member states when he issued a report claiming that legal abortion is tantamount to a human right. The report stated:
Criminal laws penalizing and restricting induced abortion are the paradigmatic examples of impermissible barriers to the realization of women’s right to health and must be eliminated…Creation or maintenance of criminal laws with respect to abortion may amount to violations of the obligations of States to respect, protect and fulfil [sic] the right to health.
Concerning religious liberty, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Nevertheless, these rights promised to individuals are at the center of a decade-long effort led by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to globalize laws against blasphemy and apostasy that are common in Islamic societies. The Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society recently hosted authors Nina Shea and Paul Marshall for an event to discuss their new book Silenced, in which they document this effort:
In 1999, some Muslim-majority states began to argue that the UN must condemn and prohibit what the OIC labels “defamation of religions,” particularly of Islam. They have acknowledged that these “defamation of religions” resolutions are meant primarily to shield Islam and Muslims from criticism. The “defamation” push effectively seeks to redefine human rights in five ways, by: 1. treating religious matters under hate speech bans as if they were akin to racial matters; 2. granting rights to religions themselves rather than to individuals; 3. creating a new right not to be offended in matters of religion; 4. claiming that freedom of religion stands in opposition to freedom of expression; 5. giving an expansive interpretation to the exceptions to the right of freedom of expression. (Silenced, p.206)
In building a case for a ban on the defamation of religions, its advocates paint Muslims collectively as victims of discrimination. In fact, the OIC has an Islamophobia Observatory, which publishes a monthly bulletin chronicling “manifestations of Islamophobia,” mostly in Europe and the United States.
All rights claims are not equal, and as the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is stretched and twisted to encompass ever more social and economic rights claims—sometimes conflicting ones—natural human rights are at risk of becoming endangered.