More than 60 years after its founding, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) remains a document relevant to contemporary issues and problems; Perhaps, its genius lies in the fact that it is a declaration that embodies a broad sweep of the world’s varied traditions, philosophies and perspectives, so that no single bloc can claim ownership over its “sacred truths,” to use a theological term in this highly secularized era of ours.
Perhaps too, it can well be said that their commonality lies in the sureness of their being profoundly human. And while critics may rightly point to how its more influential interpreters often offer to the world a lopsided bent towards the individualistic view of human rights, as a founding document, its relevance is measured by the willingness of its adherents to a reasoned dialogue about the differences and commonalities that characterize various interpretive traditions.
Of course, ontological issues cannot be summarily set swept aside. (Indeed, the Western tradition presses on the primacy of the individual as the supreme if not the only ontological truth there is).
But that precisely is the role of reasoned dialogue: to show which interpretative strategy is better able to explain the problems and the solutions to them. Hence how can we better account for the so-called collective/group rights other than a resort to the positivist predilection for the description of the what is (and its undisguised disdain for the teleological)?
This discussion is also crucial to an understanding of the rise of non-state actors in international law. Is the sociological account (as for example, the process view of Higgins) enough to convince us that original objective legal personality must now be seen as something that transcends the state.
Indeed, much of theorizing on the state has been influenced by a philosophical movement that either exalts the state as the only political reality or treats it as a legal fiction of the social contract between among purportedly free and autonomous individuals.
International legal theory takes it for granted that there is an opposition between the individual and the state, to the exclusion of all other non-state actors. International legal theory thus confronts us with a nominalism of the state as the only true sovereign and a nominalism of individuals as the basic elements of the international legal order.
Hence, international law theorists resort to an unsatisfactory strategy of (1) devising external limits to the powers of the state or (2) stressing the primacy of the individual over all else to curtail abuse of state power. This nominalistic approach has so dominated international law that for the most part, the state has been seen as the only source of legal standing and legal personality in the international arena.
The first strategy cannot fully account for the state’s public and private duties while the second strategy fails to do justice to the proper exercise of the same duties as well as to the existence of other non-state entities, such as civil society groups, churches and multinational corporations.
This in fact leads to an irresolvable conflict between the state and the individual, inasmuch as it fails to properly recognize their respective competencies, as well as the existence of other spheres in society.
Neither of the two strategies can properly account for the rise of non-state actors in international legal discourse, other than resorting to notions of democratic participation and legitimacy that in the first place do not provide a convincing ontological justification for why non-state actors should be granted the right to democratic participation and the power to ascribe legitimacy to international legal processes.
As Jeremy Sarkin has persuasively argued, there is a “clear position from 1948,” when the UNDHR was adopted, that the instrument demands that “every individual and every organ of society … promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”
From this standpoint, although “companies may not be in the habit of referring to themselves as ‘organs of society,’ they are a fundamental part of society. As such, they have a moral and social obligation to respect the universal rights enshrined in the Declaration.”
Yet his observation also begs to ask the question thus: is this merely a matter of opinio juris and state practice, or something that requires a radical and fundamental ontological commitment? Of course, we all know that even the positivist position is anchored on an unstated ontological commitment, that is, one that thinks lightly of ontology, if at all.
On the occasion of International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2015
Jeremy Sarkin, The Coming of Age of Claims for Reparations for Human Rights Violations in the South, 1 SUR INT’L J OF HUM. RIGHTS 67, 69-70 (2004)