It is that time of year again: the air is a bit cooler, the leaves are turning all their earthy hues, and the sun sets just a little bit earlier each day. Yes, fall is in full swing and it is a particularly beautiful one here in New York City! As I write this, I cannot believe that we’ve been here for a little over a month now. It has been a busy past few weeks at the United Nations.
Usually, I attend daily meetings in the Sixth Committee whenever they are in session. The discussions have touched upon diverse topics ranging from “the law of trans-boundary aquifers,” to “strengthening criminal accountability of UN officials,” the “responsibility of states for internationally wrongful acts,” or “measures to eliminate terrorism.”
This past week was especially interesting as the United Nations celebrated “International Law Week.” As a result, I’ve been listening to various States comment on the International Law Commission’s latest Report. When not at work, I’ve enjoyed going to different side-events or receptions hosted by various missions, where diplomats, lawyers, and other officials mingle and talk in a much more casual setting.
One of the most interesting things that I’m gleaning from this experience is both how similar and distinct international law is from, say, the common-law or the civil law traditions. Because it incorporates diverse legal systems in unique ways, many of the same concepts that we’ve learned in law school remain important and are quite relevant. The main difference, to me at least, is how countries must cooperate together for this process to work. Here at the United Nations, countries strive to work on the basis of consensus.
Although somewhat more amorphous than national legal systems, international law is gradually being developed and codified in ways such as these: the work of courts and tribunals (e.g., ICC and ICJ) contribute to an ever increasing corpus of legal precedent. International and regional organizations define legal frameworks, set forth guiding principles, help regularize state practices and solidify international legal norms. The States themselves negotiate treaties, contracts, and conventions, creating another layer of international law.
To prepare myself to come to New York, I knew that I had to learn more about international law and the history of the United Nations. In this regard, I read a very helpful book by Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard entitled “A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Professor Glendon takes the reader right into the waning days of World War II, when the United Nations — as the Allies were then called — began to lay the groundwork for the post-war recovery.
After the guns fell silent and the full scale of destruction became apparent, it did not take long for the surviving nations to realize that humanity needed something to articulate a new vision of the rights that every man and woman in every country around the world should share, regardless of their culture or religion. The outcome of this desire eventually birthed the first “international bill of human rights” in a unique document called The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Although it took much arduous work to get there, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UDHR in 1948. This is an example of a human-rights and international law achievement: that so many people from divergent backgrounds and world-views came together and agreed that certain rights were so integral, so intrinsic to humanity, and worthy of protection, that they should be called universal. How radical that was!
What especially fascinated me was to learn of the diverse set of drafters who represented a smattering of the mid-20th century diplomatic world: Jacques Maritain was a French-Catholic philosopher. Charles Malik was Lebanese-Christian. Rene Cassin was Jewish. P.C. Chang was a Confucian from China. Alexander E. Bogomolov represented the officially atheistic USSR. Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, was an American woman and played an integral role to encourage this work. There were many others.
The drafters were under no illusions that the UDHR would solve all the world’s human rights problems or its noble aspirations realized quickly. After all, subsequent history has since shown us the limits of what the best laws, treaties, and organizations can do. Nonetheless, what Professor Glendon says makes the UDHR important is that it “charted a bold new course for human rights by presenting a vision of freedom as linked to social security, balanced by responsibilities, grounded in respect for equal human dignity, and guarded by the rule of law”:
That vision was meant to protect liberty from degenerating into license and to repel the excesses of individualism and collectivism alike. By affirming that its rights belong to everyone, everywhere, it aimed to put an end to the idea that a nation’s treatment of its own citizens or subjects was immune from outside scrutiny. (236)
Although, like any man-made institution, the UN is imperfect and can be inefficient or redundant. But, in weighing the whole, I see much positive work coming out of these halls. From the beginning, the Catholic Church and the Holy See were strong supporters of this effort. In fact, Professor Glendon notes that Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, lent his encouragement to the drafters and called their work an “act of the highest importance” (132).
To this day, the Holy See, along with many other nations, continues the noble work bequeathed to us by the framers of the UDHR to help develop international law and protect human rights. Whether that is speaking on issues such as disarmament, world hunger relief, or the dignity of life and good of the family, the Church remains at the UN to give voice to that vision of true freedom “grounded in respect for equal human dignity and guarded by the rule of law,” knowing full well in the repository of her faith and in the light of reason the source and ground of it all:
“Behold, I make all things new…” -Revelations 21:5
Thank you for reading! Please continue to pray for Joseph and me in this work and we shall keep you in ours.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations.