In 1999, the World Youth Alliance was founded in New York City at the United Nations. At a conference on Population and Development, thirty two young people were brought into the negotiations and given the floor. They stated that they represented all three billion of the world’s youth, and demanded the following: abortion as a human right, sexual rights for children, and a deletion of parents’ rights. At a conference convened to discuss the needs of the world’s people, basic needs including access to clean water, sanitation, education, nutrition, health care, and employment were not addressed. As a reaction of conscience, Anna Halpine and a few others went back into the assembly the next morning and distributed flyers which stated that these young people did not represent all the youth of the world. She called for a discussion on topics addressing basic human rights and necessities. The statement was well-received by many delegations and she was requested to maintain a permanent presence at the United Nations, as well as to work with young people from the delegates’ countries.
In 2000, the United Nations hosted Beijing +5, a follow up conference to the global conference on women. At one point during the conference, the USA delegation offered a short oral proposal. The proposal was this: “Human rights grant human dignity”. This proposal would have reversed the human rights tradition that the United Nations and all human rights are based on. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes it clear that the dignity of the person is the basis for human rights. Reversing this language threatened the whole human rights project since it placed the definition of the person in the hands of the state. The proposal was rejected, but in that moment it was clear that the debate at the UN was fundamentally a debate about the human person. Do we, as a global community, see the human person as an object which can be used and discarded at will, or do we see the human person as a being with inviolable dignity, which stands at the center of everything that we do?
Charles Malik foresaw this debate as he presented Lebanon’s position on the drafting of a Bill on Human Rights. Malik affirmed that “the very phrase ‘human rights’ obviously refers to man and that by ‘rights’ you can only mean that which belongs to the essence of man. This means that which is not accidental, that which does not come and go with the passage of time and with the rise and fall of fads and styles and systems. It must be something belonging to man as such. We are, therefore, raising the fundamental question, what is man? And our differences will reflect faithfully the differences in our conceptions of man, namely, of ourselves”. In addressing the chair of this commission on Human Rights, Malik stated that the UN Charter “speaks in the preamble of the worth and dignity of man, Madam Chairman. That is what we are called upon to promote and protect”. (Malik, Lebanon on a Bill of Human Rights, New York, 1 February 1947)
Jacques Maritain worked with UNESCO as an expert advisor during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain wrote a famous essay outlining his response to the declaration in which he worked through the primary struggles at the heart of the document. How could men of mutually opposing beliefs come to agreement on a set of rights? Maritain relates an incident from a meeting at UNESCO to discuss the declaration. “.. someone was astonished that certain proponents of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on the draft of a list of rights. Yes, they replied, we agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the “why”, the dispute begins.” (Maritain, Man and the State, Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 1998. p. 77) Maritain concluded with his own remarks: “Since the aim of UNESCO is a practical aim, agreement among its members can be spontaneously achieved, not on common speculative notions, but on common practical notions, not on the affirmation of the same conception of the world, man, and knowledge, but on the affirmation of the same set of convictions concerning action. This is doubtless very little, it is the last refuge of intellectual agreement among men. It is, however, enough to undertake a great work; and it would mean a great deal to become aware of this body of common practical convictions.” (Ibid, pp 77-78)
In 1991 Pope John Paul II reflected on the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, and commented on what he saw happening in one critical statement: communism, he said, collapsed not for political or economic failure, but because it was based on a lie about the human person. This statement cuts to the heart of modern personal and social failure. It recognizes the necessity of affirming and safeguarding all human life as the cornerstone of free and just societies. It recognizes the great need of modern societies to articulate and understand the human person. When we answer this question correctly, we have the tools needed to build our communities. When we do not, we have seen the many varied ways in which projects, institutions and nations break apart.
This question of the why remains the area in which new developments and discussions continue to be held, and this question of the why is the continuous question of “Who is man?” Is man an entity to which the state grants rights and the protection of those rights, or is man a being with intrinsic dignity, already in possession of those rights, which must simply be recognized and respected by the state? This question, which was at the heart of the debate of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights continues to be at the heart of all major debates at the United Nations and in each of our nation states. The way in which we answer this question will determine the direction of our policy, our culture, and ultimately our vision for humanity. This is what we will offer the world today, and future generations. This question must first be decided in the hearts of individuals who then make a commitment to live in a manner expressive of these convictions. From there, these ideas will take root and flourish in the culture, and only from there can we legitimately and effectively hope to impact policy and the debates of the state.
On a global scale the dignity of the person is being threatened in real ways. Human cloning, abortion, continued spread of HIV/AIDS and the ways which we distribute foreign aid are all symptoms of a flawed understanding of the human person. Our work has involved participation at international conferences, discussion and dialogue with ambassadors, diplomats, heads of state and young people.
What we have seen is the global response of young people, and of those already placed in positions of influence in government, policy, and culture, to the ideas that we are proposing. There is an embrace of the dignity of the person, and of the need to experience this on our own, and restore it to the culture. What we are witnessing in the Arab region is a new cultural transformation among a generation of youth, who are being inspired to propose a new vision of the person to the world. As before, it is the best and brightest who are rising to this challenge, and who are stepping forward to be the light for a generation and for the whole culture.
The World Youth Alliance works to understand and articulate the idea of the human person. We work at the international institutions, and with young people around the world to build a culture that supports and nurtures the dignity of each human person. We focus on international law and human rights, economic and social development, and global health. In each of these areas we are working with young people and diplomats, intellectuals, leaders and citizens from every background and experience in order to develop proposals that address the problems we face and offer creative solutions.
Anna Halpine is the founder of the World Youth Alliance and was the WYA president from 1999 to the spring of 2007. She has her Masters in Philosophy of Religion from Yale University (2009), and a Bachelor of Music, cum laude, from Mt. Allison University in Canada (1999). She has studied piano at the Taubman Institute and voice at the Juilliard School. As Founder and past-president of WYA, Anna has traveled and lectured extensively.