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Reviving the Debate about Human Rights: Book Review

by Urs Knoblauch Monday, Feb. 28, 2005 at 1:49 PM

The author describes the development of human rights: the first generation-civil andpolitical rights, the second generation-economic, social and cultural rights and the third generation-collective rights.


Book Review: “Pictures of Human Rights” (Das Bild der Menschenrechte), edited by Walter Kalin, Lars Mueller and Judith Wyttenbach, 2004

By Urs Knoblauch

[This book review of “Pictures of Human Rights” originally published in: Zeit-Fragen Nr.7, 2/14/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Urs Knoblauch is a cultural journalist in Fruthwilen.]

A gratifying and necessary development in the last years is clear in many countries of the world. The population, intellectuals, engaged groups and the church are resisting the ominous economic globalization that will plunge the large majority of people into even more poverty and misery. The dignity of persons is violated more and more in all areas of social life, from the world of work and culture to health care. In many circles from parents and teachers to political and economic forces, the social responsibility for the present and future generations is emphasized again. The capacity for solidarity in human nature, emotional intelligence and sympathy with fellow persons, weaker persons and especially with poor children everywhere in the world encourage humanness.

Many valuable publications critically discuss the social consequences of globalization. In books like “On the Side of the Poor,” constructive dialogue has occurred on the highest social-ethical level within church circles. The positions of the important catholic liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez and those of the Vatican and the catholic bishop of Regensburg Gerhard Ludwig Mueller are similar. Given the brutal “globalization trap” and the inconceivable poverty and impoverishment of millions of people in countless countries and not only in Latin America and Africa, reviving the debate on the social foundations and respecting human dignity, conducting the debate outside of all ideological positions and suing for human dignity and human rights are urgent obligations.


The 720-page photo volume “Pictures of Human Rights” edited by Walter Kalin, Lars Mueller and Judith Wyttenbach from “Lars Mueller publishers” is a very valuable contribution. Numerous organizations, foundations and persons contributed to the volume. “This book attempts to present all the dimensions of human rights in words and pictures. On one side, photographs with examples from many different cultures show the full realization of human rights and people living in freedom and dignity. The accompanying texts illustrate human rights standards established in international law and applied in practice. On the other side, the violation of human rights is also documented. The examples make clear that no state and no society is completely immune from the temptation to ignore the rights of others when it serves their own goals. Finally, the efforts of the international community, international and national non-governmental organizations to prevent human rights violations are shown.


Individual authors introduce complex themes in the different chapters attractively arranged in different colors and with impressive photographs. The “dimensions of human life and protection of human rights are clearly divided in the form of an organically growing spiral. From the interior and the human person, the spiral with the themes “Human Existence” and “The Right to Life” leads to “Human Identity”. An “appropriate living standard” with the “right to food, right to health and right to housing” follows the “prohibition of discrimination”. Then the “private sphere” and the “right to private life” are thematicized. “Thinking and spirituality”, “freedom of conscience, freedom of worship”, the “right to education”, “economic activity”, the “right to work” and “protection of property” followed. Finally, the larger political dimension was addressed: “in the hands of the state”, the “right to fair procedure, prohibition of torture”, “political cooperation” and the “right to freedom of expression and political rights”. The themes “expulsion, flight and exile” and the “rights of refugees and displaced persons” are open for elaboration at the end of the spiral.


In the introductory chapter, the question “What are human rights?” is presented and answered in a very coherent way. “International human rights are the legal claims of persons toward the state or state bodies guaranteed by international law that protect essential aspects of the person and dignity in peace times and in war.”

The author Walter Kalin is a professor of constitutional law and international law at the University of Bern, member of the human rights committee of the university, representative of the UN General Secretariat for Human Rights and expert in many Swiss commissions and international institutions like the UN. This chapter is the result of a long shared struggle for ethical standards built on an anthropological view of the person. For centuries, every society has asked “What is a person and what is he entitled to?” This was first seriously discussed on the international plane after the Second World War. The “common ideal to be attained by all people and nations” was solemnly proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights declares: All persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are gifted with reason and conscience and should encounter one another in the spirit of brotherliness and sisterliness” (Art. 1). Therefore every person has a claim to the rights and freedoms proclaimed in this declaration without distinctions of race, skin color, gender, language, religion, political or non-political convictions, national or social origin, property, birth or other circumstances” (Art 2).

The author shows how much engagement over decades and centuries was needed to work out the standards of human rights in effect today. Since the Enlightenment, this question was discussed again and again and became the foundation of many national constitutional texts. The Virginia Bill of Rights of 1776 declared: All persons by nature are free and independent in the same way and possess certain innate rights…” “Natural freedom and equality was also codified in the “French Declaration of the Rights of Persons and Citizens”. The 1874 “Swiss Constitution” held that all Swiss are equal before the law. On account of its development of direct democracy and neutrality, Switzerland has an extraordinarily long and great humanitarian tradition. The German constitution also begins with the unequivocal statement: “The dignity of the person is inviolable.”

The author summarizes the most important human rights agreements from 1966 to 1990 and the three most important “Regional Human Rights agreements” like for example the 1981 “African Human Rights Charter” and the 1950 “European Convention on Protecting Human Rights and Basic Freedoms.”

The author describes the development of human rights. “The first generation: civil and political rights” goes back to the late 18th century. Then the “second generation: economic, social and cultural rights” arose as a consequence of the impoverishment of vast parts of the population in the wake of industrialization and include social questions and struggles. The development of “the third generation: collective rights” after the Second World War was impelled by the desire for peace and a healthy environment.


In the chapter “The Right to Food,” the question is raised: “Why is half the world hungry?” “Hunger is not a question of ate.” Food production is possible for all people but is prevented by political and economic planning and by the hundreds of billions in armaments – and war costs. “The right not to have to suffer hunger is a central human right because hunger and serious malnutrition hinders enjoyment of all other human rights.” The madness of today’s global “robber baron stock market transactions and the cr4iminal policy of wars and terror is blatant here. The Iraqi war alone has devoured money that could have largely removed hunger and misery all over the world. Every week America spends billion for the Iraq war. Funds are taken away from basic state provisions and are lacking for social, health and education functions in America and elsewhere. trillion is spent worldwide for war material every year and weapons are deployed! Inconceivable sums are withdrawn from national economies causing human suffering. Thus food is denied people and the population all over the world is robbed of its life, money, legal foundations of life and prosperity. A society is created in which a preferred rich “20% elite” leaves misery to the remaining 80%.. Having a good job and not being torn out of family and culture and earning one’s living elsewhere in the world is a happiness today.

The chapter on the “right to health” is also presented very convincingly. Being healthy is an important asset enabling a person to actively cooperate in the organization of life and exercise other human rights. The different factors of health and medical assistance all over the world are thematicized with the question “Why is the life of a woman in Angola 44 years shorter than in France?” Beside the legal provisions, the political and official institutions, civil society, non-governmental organizations and individual model persons are emphasized. In further chapters, the “right to housing,” the “right to private life,” the “right to education” and political rights are described and documented with very impressive color photographs and texts. Questions are raised that stimulate reflection and lead the reader into concrete problems: “Can a person live in a cardboard box?” “Are people only “capital” or “human beings”? The modern technical dangers to “protection of identity,” privacy and the family are shown in the examples of identity cards, biometrics and genetic data. How people are severely degraded is also clear here. Violations of human rights are counteracted with UNESCO, UN documents and the engagement of other organizations.


Prof. Walter Kagi stresses the actuality and increasing consciousness of human rights. “Despite different political systems and cultural backgrounds, more and more states agree to the idea of human rights and its concrete substance. The increasing acceptance of human rights in all parts of the world is manifest in the confession of states to the universality of human rights in the 1993 Declaration of the Vienna world conference on human rights and in the fact that nearly all states of the world have ratified at least some of the human rights conventions since the end of the Cold War and guarantee human rights in their constitutional orders.”

Finally the author refers to the great human development possibilities: “The community of states has taken a great step forward with the legal anchoring of human rights in the constitutions of the UN and regional organizations. Thanks to this set of agreements, humanity has binding standards today by which states can be measured. No government of the world can still claim today that its treatment of individuals and religious, ethnic or lingual minorities are purely internal affairs. The core area of human rights protectio0n is uncontested today despite the problems of agreeing on universal standards in historically and culturally sensitive areas. Differences of opinion and even conflicts in the realm of human rights can be overcome. Cultures are not static realities but educable. That they change and influence one another is one of the basic constants of humanity’s history. Human rights despite their western origin are increasingly acknowledged by people as a universal standard for a good life in dignity.”


Reading this comprehensive work and studying the photographs is strongly recommended. The book is a gold mine for school projects. However the book also demands social acts in all areas of everyday human life. The author rightly stresses that these great civilization achievements of human rights must be kept alive again and again. The duty of championing human dignity arises in daily life for every person whether young or old. Genocide, torture, hunger and oppression in all their frightening forms violate human rights. As educators, teachers and citizens, we may not allow “despising the rights of others to serve our own goals” as the introductory section declares. Human dignity is in effect for all persons and must be promoted, discussed and sued for in the education routine from the first years of life to high school, in occupational life and as citizens. Schools, education and training do not exist so our children later participate in the darker businesses of the globalizers, in lying political intrigues and wars and violate human rights. Culture and education have the function of forming all of us into members of a community of humanness and peace.

With this book, the editors value highly the human project and its models. “The depiction of human rights focuses attention on people engaged for their protection. The portraits in this book are examples of individual persons opposing human rights violations. The many thousands of activists everywhere in the world deserve our respect. This book is dedicated to them and their organizations.” Kagi writes: “The will of states and international organizations is necessary to enforce these principles and act against violators independent of considerations of political or economic opportunity. We should all be increasingly conscious that human rights are not realized automatically. Whether or not persons are now born free and equal, their freedom and equality in every case depend concretely on authorities and private persons taking seriously the message of human rights. In other words, human rights are not simply claimed but must be worked out.

Our world cannot ultimately be pacified without the engagement of people for their fellow-persons, without sympathy for their suffering and solidarity with the victims, without the cry of protest against oppression and contempt for human dignity and without the persistent call for more justice.” Realizing human rights and respecting the dignity of people should be seen as the central challenge for education and culture, a task for every generation and their children and youth.

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