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Sunday marked the beginning of a year-long campaign to honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly, before the 70th anniversary of its adoption next year. While it represented the first international recognition of the universality of human rights, now is a good time to reflect on the nature of the rights conferred by the declaration.
The first 22 Articles stand for individual rights and rule of law, arguing for freedoms such as free speech, freedom of assembly, movement and practice of religion. These rights are the bedrock of a liberal, democratic society. Every country, rich or poor, can guarantee them because their abidance needs nothing more than restraint on government’s power. But UDHR’s force is diluted by welfare “rights”. They are not inalienable—their fulfilment requires the state to perform certain positive duties, and they make rights violation acceptable.
The world is better off with the UDHR than without it, but listing welfare goals as rights is merely legislating away the world’s problems. It would be better to focus on limiting the abuse of power.