Foundations of Human Dignity

Dignity in an ever changing world

Remarks by WYA Founder Anna Halpine at Europe House, Zagreb, on the occasion of the official launch of the WYA Croatia National Committee, March 2013.

WYA Founder Anna Halpine

WYA Founder Anna Halpine

On the 10th of December, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted.

The power of the declaration lies in its insistence that human rights are predicated on the dignity of the person. The first line of the Declaration which states “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” accords pride of place to the concept of human dignity in the understanding and implementation of human rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee, holding the final version in Spanish.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee, holding a copy of it.

Such pride of place is correct. Since human rights are, technically, legal instruments that bind states, there must be a prior foundation on which they need to be established if they point to a reality of the human condition which states must respect. This the Declaration of Human Rights does.  In noting immediately that human rights are rooted in the “inherent dignity” of each human person, and that recognition of this is the foundation for peace, freedom and justice in the world, the framers of the Declaration of Human Rights  committed themselves to the fact that States have an obligation to defend the human person as a pre-requisite to being considered a just state. The order established here is clear, and of the utmost importance. States earn their legitimacy by recognizing that they are the protectors of their citizens, and of the intrinsic dignity that their citizens possess. States do not establish or bestow this dignity.

The importance of this ordering, which recognizes the dignity of the person as prior to the state, and thus recognizes the responsibility of the state in recognizing and affirming this dignity, is essential to building free and just societies. When states try to abrogate to themselves the right to grant human dignity, rather than merely to affirm or protect it, a fundamental abuse has taken place and the order and nature of the free and just State has been transgressed.

The reason for this distinction is necessary and clear; what the state can give, the state can rescind. If the state can grant human dignity, it can also take it away. Yet, we know that human persons have an inviolable worth that it theirs by virtue of being a human person, which cannot be granted or rescinded by the state. Thus, while a state can violate that dignity, it cannot remove it or diminish it in any way, since it is owned, by right of being human, by each and every individual.

This fact is the first fact established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is the foundation for the modern human rights project.

Charles Malik was the youngest member of the drafting committee, a young mathematics and philosophy professor from the American University of Beirut, sent, on his first diplomatic mission,  to represent Lebanon in the crafting of the Declaration. Malik stood out immediately. He was elected rapporteur of the process, an accomplishment that recognized his unique ability to pull the document together and ensure that the disparate views could be held together and result in the document we now have. This was no easy task, and Malik was entrusted with shepherding an unwieldy process through many years of drafts, working in collaboration with some great minds, both at the UN, and in international philosophical advisory circles developed to comment and support the drafting process.

For Malik, the question facing the drafters of the Declaration and the question that is at the heart of the human rights project is, “Who is the human person?” Mary Ann Glendon refers to the transcript of the debates as the Declaration was drafted, which reveals Malik’s insistence on this question as the heart of the project from the very beginning.

When we speak of human rights, [Malik] said, “We are raising the fundamental question, what is man?”  When we disagree about human rights, he went on, we are really disagreeing about the nature of the person. “Is man merely a social being? Is he merely an animal? Is he merely an economic being?”

Malik’s insistence on the importance of the dignity of the person at the heart of the human rights debate – that it is, fundamentally, a debate on the reality and nature of the human person – was confirmed by the UNESCO committee of experts tasked with responding to the various drafts. Jacques Maritain, the French political philosopher, wrote a famous essay on the question of the Declaration of Human Rights.

“[S]omeone 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.

“How,” [Maritain] asked, “is an agreement conceivable among men assembled for the purpose of jointly accomplishing a task dealing with the future of the mind, who come from the four corners of the earth and who belong not only to different cultures and civilizations, but to different spiritual families and antagonistic schools of thought? Since the aim of UNESCO is a practical aim, agreement among it 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 went on to issue a prophetic statement: if this clarity in understanding the underlying claims and conceptions of the human person were not undertaken, the great project of human rights would collapse. In other words, further examination into the meaning and understanding of the dignity of the person must be established in order to maintain this concept as the cornerstone of the human rights movement.


Sixty years later, this work has yet to be done. At the same time, Maritain’s prophetic warning is coming true. Without a clear and strong understanding of the idea of human dignity as the centerpiece of human rights, human rights can cease to lose their strength and meaning, and become nothing more than a means of pushing favored ideologies backed by political power in the public square.

This was exhibited at the time of the founding of the World Youth Alliance, in 1999 and 2000. In New York, debates on population and development and women’s rights had devolved into radical demands by western states for abortion rights. Such demands fly in the face of a respect for the dignity of each person, and trample on the rights of the smallest and most vulnerable members of the human family. Further, these demands bear no relation to the needs facing women and children who are living in poverty and lacking development around the world. Hijacking the human rights debates in order to pressure countries to pass favored ideological commitments demonstrates precisely the unmooring of the human rights project from an understanding of human dignity that Malik and Maritain warned against.

In 2000, during the UN negotiations on women, the US proposed a small oral amendment that stated “human rights grant human dignity.” This amendment would have reversed the entire human rights project. If states grant human dignity, through the allocation of rights, then states can remove it. Such a statement is the entire reversal of the modern human rights project, and places all power for the definition of the person – and his rights – in the hands of the State.

The World Youth Alliance has stood, since 1999, as a witness of young people from every corner of the globe who defend and affirm the dignity of each and every person. We recognize that this dignity is inviolable, and that it begins at the moment of conception and extends through natural life. We have recognized that it is only in affirming this inalienable human dignity that free and just societies can be established and will flourish.

The young members of the World Youth Alliance monitor and participate at all of the UN meetings that relate to this question of the dignity of the person. Our full-time advocacy team monitors developments and negotiations in the UN, EU and other international meetings, and works to bring our young people into the very heart of these debates.

The members of the World Youth Alliance stand as a witness to the dignity of the person every time they enter the floor, and, as importantly, have been able to influence the outcome of these meetings and documents consistently over time.

From 2003-2006, the World Youth Alliance worked relentlessly on the draft Declaration to ban all forms of human cloning. The US delegation at the time recognized the influence of these efforts in their formal intervention at the UN, stating in their closing remarks that they were joined not only by over 80 member states, but by “over 1 million young people, from over 100 countries, members of the World Youth Alliance, who have come to us to say that only a total ban on human cloning can protect the dignity of each and every human life.” They closed their statement that day by appealing to the delegates “let us say to the youth, the future leaders of the world, we heard you.”

In other quieter ways, WYA continues to shape the dialogue and outcomes at the UN. We worked on the outcome document for the last HIV/AIDS conference at the UN, insisting that the document must take the latest evidence and science into consideration, and include a clear insistence on behavior change as essential to fighting HIV/AIDS. This, too, was included in the final document.

We have worked to insist on the removal of population control and management targets, on the inclusion of language respecting cultural norms and religious freedom, and to highlight the importance of the family in social and economic development.

We work consistently to defend the right to life, and to make sure that the smallest, most vulnerable members of the human family are protected in these documents.

Increasingly, we are also working directly with Member States to develop solutions for them, which will better allow them to meet the obligations of their countries under international law, while protecting the dignity of each person. This work is rooted in a deep understanding of the ultimate importance of the negotiations that take place at the UN.

Policy Cycle Framework

Policy Cycle Framework

We understand that policy is really a wheel, or a larger framework. Policy drives funding, domestic or international, and funding is for program implementation. Once programs are implemented, they provide the clear outline of future policy needs. Working from this framework, it is clear that policy proposals must be tied to program options for implementation.

Over the past 6 years, we have been working with member states to develop responses that affirm the dignity of the person, human life and the family, and are now implementing and developing a pilot curriculum program to this end in the Caribbean. Linked to this curriculum is a women’s health program that works to ensure that our girls, women and mothers are healthy and have the special care they need, which is so essential to development and the flourishing of our children and families.

Respect for the dignity of the person entails significant responsibilities and limits for the State. In respecting the dignity of the person, the State must recognize that there are limits to its powers, and that those limits end precisely where the authentic freedom and worth of the human person begin. The right to life, from conception to natural death, is the only position worthy of the dignity of the person. Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion flow naturally from a respect for the dignity of each person. Respect for the human family, in its natural constitution, is essential for the protection and nurturing of human life, and such institutions are prior to, and indeed form the nucleus of, flourishing, free societies.

The defense of such ideas becomes practical when it is tied to programs that we can offer in order to implement our ideas. The fight to eradicate poverty and invest in human development can only succeed when the human person is placed at the center, and investment in the flourishing of each individual is insisted upon. The person can never be seen as the problem, or expended for the material gain of an individual and society; such an approach inevitably leads to the cheapening of human life, and, consequently, social and economic decline. At its worst, social engineering and population control, dictated by the State, ensue.

The legacy of Charles Malik, Jacques Maritain, and other champions of the human rights project stands as a challenge to this generation. Will we follow in their footsteps, giving our lives for the defense of the human person, and engage in the struggle for peace? Will we take up the challenge articulated by Jacques Maritain, to further understand and articulate a defense for the human person, in order to more deeply and authentically respond to the challenges of our time?

It is a great joy to be here with you in Zagreb, to participate in this launch of the WYA Croatia committee. I would like to thank all those whose great efforts have led to this wonderful moment. From our Europe team: Daniel Wisniewski, our Director, Agnes King, our Director of Operations, and Juan Ignatio Fernandez, our Director of Advocacy. Here in Croatia, thanks are due to our alumni, especially Zrinka Cornij, all of our committee members, our new members and our volunteers, noting in particular the head of our committee, Hrvoje Vargic. I look forward to all that will come from this great project, and to all that you will contribute to our shared work in the defense of the human person.

Learn more about the history and ideas of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the interplay between human dignity and international policy in Chapter 7 of WYA’s Certified Training Program, which is held three times a year. 

Since the occasion of these remarks, WYA has launched the two programs Anna mentioned. Click to learn more about the FEMM program and the Human Dignity Curriculum.