Anna Halpine’s Speech At CUEA

Population and Development: Are Ethics Necessary for Sustainability?

By: Anna Halpine


The World Youth Alliance was founded in New York, at the United Nations, during the five year review conference of Cairo + 5 (population and development). At the request of many delegations at the UN, we formed a global coalition of young people who were united in their defense of the dignity of the human person and human flourishing.

In 2000, at a conference on women, a very important, oral amendment was proposed. The amendment said: “Human rights grant human dignity.”  While the amendment failed, it provided a clear illustration of the fundamental philosophical debate taking place at the UN. The idea that human rights grant human dignity is the absolute reversal of the human rights project. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that the dignity of the person is the foundation and basis for all human rights. To state otherwise is to decide that human rights are merely arbitrary declarations by those in power. We need to remember that human rights are legal instruments that bind states; and to grant to the state the authority to recognize who is a human person is both a betrayal of the modern human rights project, and the foundational basis for human rights violations and injustices, as we have seen throughout history and In a particularly way throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

This amendment made it clear that the fundamental question facing the United Nations, and its member states, is the question of the human person. Who is the human person? Does the human person have inviolable dignity?

The modern human rights project

The modern human rights project arises out of the devastation of World War II. Because of this, the Nuremburg Trials are an important defining point in understanding the core commitments at the heart of our conception of international human rights today. The Nuremburg Trials faced a dilemma – on what basis could they try the high ranking Germans in front of the court? Each of the men on trial – Generals, Politicians, Architects, Engineers – had followed civil and military law in implementing their part in the holocaust.

The Nuremburg Tribunal established that there was a higher law, one written in the conscience of each person, that enables us to know the difference between just and unjust laws. We are obliged to follow just laws, and, the Nuremburg Tribunal concluded, we are obliged to break unjust laws. Unjust laws are those that violate “the conscience of mankind”, as it was later phrased in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As such, a prior human obligation – stronger than our obligation to follow positive law – to protect fellow human beings, rather than work to ensure their wholesale destruction, provided the basis to conduct the trial at Nuremburg. This claim is central to the modern human rights project, which can be said to have arisen from this foundation developed for the Nuremburg Trials. 

The philosophical foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had now been laid; man can know good from evil, and has a prior duty to follow the dictates of his conscience ahead of any positive laws that may be enacted by the state. In addition, each person has an obligation to violate positive laws that abrogate their rights of conscience, in order to defend basic human truths. The universality of the human rights project is based on this commitment to objective moral norms, accessible and knowable to each human person. 

Charles Malik was the rapporteur for the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). A philosopher and professor from Lebanon, he insisted throughout the process that the Declaration was fundamentally about one question: ‘Who is the human person?” For Malik, it was essential to provide a clear understanding of the human person as the subject at the heart of the human rights project. Understanding the person could allow us to understand the rights, duties and obligations that would follow. 

Another philosopher, Jacques Maritain, was part of a team assembled by UNESCO to comment on the drafts of the UDHR as they were produced.  In a famous essay, Maritain asked “[h]ow 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 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.”

Maritain warned, however, that if this foundational work, of coming to common speculative commitments about the dignity of the person was not done, the project would, over time, risk collapse. 60 years into the modern human rights project this foundation work has not been done, and it is worth questioning if the human rights project is, in fact, successful and sustainable.

Failures of human rights – and failures to protect and affirm the dignity of the person – are all around us. We don’t have to look far to see violence against human persons – here we are very close to the genocide in the Sudan, to Somali and other refugees forced out of their homes, and attacks on persons from different tribes and races. Every country experiences its own problems of abuse against the human person – some more obvious than others. In the west, we also have human rights problems; declining tolerance for religious liberty and freedom, the promotion of social policy through coercive foreign aid, and the devastating violence against women and children caused by abortion.

Causes of the Failure of the Human Rights Project

After so many bright hopes were invested in the international human rights project, what are the causes of this failure?

Jacques Maritain’s prophetic words give us the clue. Without a clear and strong understanding of the dignity of the person, a basis for the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights cannot be established. If human rights are not grounded in the dignity of the person – clearly and robustly understood – then human rights become only another euphemism for the exercise of power by states. Either human rights are a recognition of the inalienable dignity of the person, or they are yet another tool for the objectification and definition of human persons by the state. These are the only two options in front of us.

After the collapse of communism, in 1991, John Paul II discussed this problem in a letter to the world, entitled, Centessimus Annus. In it, John Paul II posed the question: why did communism collapse? His answer was this: communism collapsed not for political or economic failures. Communism collapsed because it was based on a lie about the human person.

This analysis is powerful. It enables us to understand that any system or society that is not rooted in an understanding of the human person will ultimately collapse. It may not collapse today or tomorrow – or even in 40 years – but it will, eventually, collapse. History shows this to be true. Every age has its own particular problems through which violations of the human person take place. Each of these violations – usually after long struggles – are eventually overcome. Slavery is now abolished, and a blot on our history from the past. The recognition of women as persons has now been established in law, history and philosophy – all over the world. The recognition of minorities as persons has now also been established as normative – the UDHR itself recognizes the intrinsic and inalienable dignity of each person, regardless of race, sex or creed.  

But attacks on the dignity of the person remain. Each generation must do its part to defend the freedom and dignity of each human person. Today, attacks on the human person take place in many forms. I would like to spend the rest of my time thinking about many of the human rights problems that we face in relation to the question of population and development. 

Human Rights and Development

Human rights are rooted in a prior understanding and respect for the dignity of the person. An affirmation of the dignity of the human person puts the human person at the centre of development by addressing his basic human, social and economic needs thus ensuring that every person is included in the development process. A person-centered approach to development is therefore crucial for ethical and sustainable human development and for the determination of policies and programs related to the dignity of the person.

Failure to put the human person first in development often results in the violation of his dignity and rights. Population control programs see the human person as a problem and an obstacle to development. As such, these programs raise significant ethical and human rights problems. These violations can take place at numerous levels. At the level of international policy, coercive funding for the implementation of programs and practices in developing nations is an affront to the dignity of the person. At the national level, the acceptance of such funds and programs, and the implementation of programs that do not respect the dignity of each person lead to conditions that endanger social and human flourishing, and, at their worst, can precipitate social collapse.

A focus on population control channels limited resources, creativity and energy in the wrong direction. Persons are solutions, not problems, and with appropriate investment in their education, capabilities and talents, they are the precise resource that develop the solutions for human and economic flourishing.

The following case studies can give us some examples of the current human rights abuses that arise in the implementation of population control programs.

China’s famous one child policy is managed by the state through coercive birth control, sterilization and forced abortions. The human rights abuses associated with this policy are well-documented. In addition, new problems are arising. China is missing around 100 million baby girls – girls who have been aborted because they are girls, or left to die after birth by families desperate for their only child to be a boy. The gender balance in China is now dangerously off balance; demographers are unsure if it can be repaired, as there are now over 117 boys for every 100 girls.

To fill the need for girls, child stealing, abduction and trafficking of women is on the rise. Neighboring countries are often paying the price for the dearth of girls in China, as women are now routinely stolen and imported from Burma, Cambodia and other areas. China is also struggling with a problem of population ageing. It now seems clear that China will grow old before she will grow rich, and the specter of millions of poor Chinese, without children or state security to care for them, will become a new problem of potentially grave human rights violations for this state. India, too, has had a history of population control programs, from the disastrous sterilization camps of the 1970’s, where thousands were forcibly sterilized and died, to its current government program to stabilize national population growth by 2045. Although the government claims that the program is voluntary, the poor are offered financial incentives today to get sterilized.

Cambodia and Vietnam have reopened discussions to reinstate coercive population targets, and there is some evidence indicating that minority and rural populations are currently being targeted for population control programs and forced sterilization. The link between eugenics and population control policies is always a present danger, and it is usually the most vulnerable and helpless populations that suffer under experimental or state policies.

Singapore, on the other hand, was so successful in the implementation of its population control programs in the 60’s and 70’s that the government now has a desperate campaign in place to encourage its population to have more children. The government now actively funds dating programs, such as love boats for singles, and provides significant baby bonuses which increase per child. Nevertheless, such programs have not been found to have a significant effect, and their population is beginning to move into a desperate fall, threatening to undo the economic and development achievements over the past decades. We’re learning that though we can curb population growth, coercively or voluntarily, we don’t know how to increase it.

Here in Kenya, population control measures target the most vulnerable, and recent cases suggest that this type of program and systematic abuse continues. Poor women with HIV/AIDS are now coming forward claiming that they were forcibly sterilized, or sterilized without their consent. The withholding of medical treatment in exchange for consent to sterilization is not valid consent, and is a brutal violation of the dignity of vulnerable persons in order to deprive them of their rights, agency and autonomy. If, in fact, the claims of these women are validated, it will provide yet another example of the devastating consequences of population control ideas and policies, and the price that the poor and vulnerable have to pay for this social experimentation.

The above population control programs have led to serious human rights abuses and social unrest, without clearly influencing or propelling economic growth. It is interesting to note that the policies which China has used to force its one child policy, are the inverse of its policies towards its economic development. Most economists today do not credit the population control programs with the economic activity which then flourished, but recognize that it was the more open economic systems – precisely the opposite of the coercive government population control programs – coupled with large, young, educated populations that enabled human ingenuity, growth, and development. Just this past week, China’s own government think tank issued a report calling for an end to the one child policy. The report noted the huge social and political cost China has paid for implementation of the  policy, while also pointing out that it is a relic of the past when government managed the economy, population, housing and all aspects of life.  Now, with a free economy, the Chinese also want the freedom to plan the size of their own families.

Hong Kong is a success story that demonstrates the importance of human ingenuity and creativity in creating and generating economic growth and human development. Now one of the strongest economies in the world, Hong Kong was written off in the 1950’s as a failed state. A local UN official stated that the only thing that could save Hong Kong would be massive infusions of foreign aid. The government noted that their population problem “lies at the core of every problem facing the administration." The country was extremely crowded, with “density at a rate of two thousand persons to an acre in single-story huts with no sanitation.” However, population control policies were not implemented. Instead, a combination of enterprise, creativity and risk, transformed the unused human capitol of the 50’s into the booming economy of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Population density increased in this time period fivefold, as economic progress and achievements grew even faster.

Hong Kong is an excellent example of the need to provide opportunities for human creativity and solutions, rather than to suppress human agency and seek government controlled solutions. Economists note the usual trajectory of successful economic turnarounds. Population growth can lead to an initial period of difficulty, as growth sometimes outpaces production and ingenuity, but shortly thereafter, it is the abundance of human ingenuity and manpower that soon enables the development of creative new solutions, enterprises and opportunities that propel economic and human development forward.

The relationship between human flourishing, person-centered development and respect for human dignity makes sense. A return to the basic philosophical commitments of the human rights project reminds us that the person can never be used as an object, but must always be treated as the human subject with dignity that he or she is. Further, history teaches us that programs and policies that violate the dignity of the person ultimately fail.

There are thus ethical, philosophical, economic, and political reasons to recommit ourselves to a defense of the dignity of each person, and to the development of person-centered programs as a key priority. Each situation will require new and ingenious solutions. The persons closest to those difficulties – local experts, entrepreneurs and residents –  need to be engaged to find the solutions to the challenges facing them. Limits are necessary to the generation of creative new solutions and responses. We achieve our greatest successes when faced with difficult or seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Recognizing that respect for the dignity of each person is a critical limit in the development of policy and programs allows us to look for new, creative solutions without violating the dignity and rights of human persons.

Downlpad the full speech here.