UDHR guides empathy’s transformative power through principles of dignity. Realizing this vision begins with recognizing the shared humanity among us. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt found herself chairing a United Nations commission tasked with an immense challenge – defining fundamental human rights protections so the global community could unite to prevent future atrocities. Roosevelt later recounted, “We were primarily concerned with extricating humankind from the savagery and suffering which had characterized the war years. We aimed to lift human rights to the level of world conscience.” On December 10th, 1948, after tireless debates, negotiations, and revisions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was finally adopted by the UN General Assembly. This year marks the 75th anniversary of that revolutionary moment – emerging from the embers of global conflict to articulate innate freedoms no government can deny its people, regardless of race, colour, religion, sex or status.
As we commemorate this significant anniversary, reflecting more deeply on the fundamental basis for human dignity and rights proclaimed in the UDHR is fitting. What makes us human and gives rise to inherent equality and liberty? Human beings’ capabilities can be brought together under two general characteristics. On the one hand, humans are natural beings; on the other, they are rational beings. It is observed that the basis of their birth, growth, development and activities within the limits of the universe stems from these two aspects. As natural beings, it is understood that humans, like all other beings, exist in time and space and are subject to the laws of nature. Within the natural laws, humans are also subject to the motions of generation, corruption, and extinction intrinsic to nature through the aspect they possess from their creation. By rational beings it meant that humans materialized in this realm of natural beings, got to know, made laws freely within nature, and enforced them.
The point that needs to be concisely expressed here is that the human desire to know and make is a fundamental feature of human nature that can never be hindered. Knowing and driving are the most basic human rights. Any external intervention into the human abilities to know and make means denying human existence and being. In this sense, being human is in and of itself a right and reality.
On the other hand, a human finds the state we call freedom in the depths of his soul. The general term we use to express meanings like being free, independent, capable, able to implement, pure, noble-spirited, and unhindered in motion is “liberty”. The human who says “I exist too” and “I also have a place and meaning in existence” demonstrates that he is free primarily by becoming conscious of his existence and displaying it. Freedom liberty is the state of a human exhibiting his essence unrestrainedly and freely without being subject to any restriction. Freedom is a state of independence. This state characterizes the human being devoid of any coercion, limitation, or external pressure and denotes the power to act freely, which a human possesses by virtue of being human.
The concept of freedom is used as the equivalent of the concept of liberty. The state of thinking or behaving without being subject to any restraint or coercion, not being conditional on anything, and human deciding based on his own will and thought, independent of any external influence, is defined as freedom.
Freedom characterizes the area of independence of the individual. In this sense, freedom describes “not harming others”. Unlimited freedom would lead to an unfree situation, as it would limit the rights of others. In this regard, while our freedom limits the freedom of others, the freedom of others also limits our freedom.
External intervention in the exercise of rights and freedoms is inconceivable. However, the exercise of the rights and liberties also has a limit. For example, one does not have the freedom to recklessly endanger others or cause them harm, as that infringes upon their own rights and freedoms. The abuse of the rights and liberties cannot be permitted.
There is an intertwined relationship between the concepts of freedom and rights. However, while the concept of freedom expresses a more general and abstract state, the idea of rights characterizes a more concrete and specific situation. Freedom is a right that is innate to all individuals. However, not every right can be categorized as freedom. Freedom is the common origin of all rights, while rights are the legal powers granted by law to individuals in order to realize freedoms. Freedoms are “being able to do”. Rights are “to want.”
Human rights are inconceivable without freedom. The concepts of rights and freedoms are also closely related to the idea of equality. Equality and freedom are two concepts that complement each other. The idea of equality is often used together with the concept of freedom. The path to freedom passes through equality, and social order and individual freedom are achieved to the extent that freedoms are enjoyed equally.
Freedom cannot be transferred to another nor avoided. Using things that harm people is not freedom. There is rational freedom; however, no one has the freedom to eliminate the freedoms of others. For example, the freedom to restrict voting rights or access to healthcare directly inhibits the freedoms of certain groups. Benefiting from freedoms is achieved through knowledge. Ignorant people cannot benefit from their rights and freedoms to the necessary extent. Misusing rights and freedoms leads to their deprivation. Ultimately, the freedom to destroy freedoms contradicts the premise of liberty itself and is unacceptable in a just society aimed at empowering all individuals.
Thinking is a mind-based process where a causal relationship is established between events. Freedom of thought refers to people’s ability to access information and ideas freely, not being prosecuted for their thoughts and opinions, and being able to openly express, defend and communicate their thoughts and opinions to others without restriction. What is meant by freedom of thought is that individuals can freely express their perspectives and beliefs. Considering the essential role this freedom plays in enabling people to comprehend and exercise other liberties, freedom of thought has been given a superior and privileged status compared to other liberties.
It is human’s actions and creations that make the world meaningful. Humans are as valuable as the extent to which they work, produce, and share their unique gifts and talents. For example, great thinkers and inventors throughout history who shared their breakthrough ideas and technologies fundamentally shaped civilization. When confronted with adverse situations, humans will never relinquish their willpower and will respect all humanity’s universal rights and freedoms.
Throughout history, we have witnessed dominant worldviews applying pressure on minority perspectives, often attempting to assimilate or oppress those holding different viewpoints. Sources of such discriminatory attitudes include pessimism, jealousy, anger, and the conditioned assumption that one’s worldview must be the most correct. For instance, the oppression of religious minorities under various theocracies demonstrates this tendency for a dominant majority to perceive minority belief systems as threatening. However, a person carrying the joy of life would be tolerant and understanding towards other worldviews. One who has lost this sense of meaning might develop a pessimistic, hostile, and aggressive posture toward different perspectives. Essentially, upholding freedom of thought requires respecting a diversity of viewpoints.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, crafted in a spirit of convergence, not surrender, emerged from a collective conviction that human dignity hinges on equal empowerment. As one of its chief architects famously proclaimed, ‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.’
Today, we find ourselves inhabiting those ‘small places’ where rights and respect face daily scrutiny. When tensions arise between groups with divergent perspectives or experiences, we can draw inspiration from the UDHR’s emphasis on conscience over coercion, embracing dialogues that seek understanding rather than coercion. Truth and reconciliation commissions, for instance, have endeavoured to mend divides by bringing conflicting parties together through empathetic discourse.
Progress, like the path towards universal human rights, is a winding, arduous road, simultaneously upholding individual liberty and collective belonging through endeavours and communities that foster transparency alongside marginalized voices long silenced.
On this anniversary, the UDHR’s early champions would likely advocate not for self-congratulatory acclaim for past achievements but for an honest reckoning with the arduous journey ahead to elevate human rights to the cornerstone of universal principles within every society.
Empathy, not conformity, is the path to a more just world where all individuals can exercise their freedoms. The UDHR’s principles of dignity and understanding provide a roadmap for unlocking the transformative power of empathy. Realizing this vision starts with recognizing the humanity that binds us all.