Friday, March 25, 2011

Gray Lines in the UDHR?

Between our discussion of torture and my specific documentary for class, I am having to do a lot of evaluating of gray area. While we debated the legitimacy of torture last class, the plain fact is it is explicitly prohibited by the UDHRs and, therefore, no is the final word. In the same article that excludes torture the UDHR also prohibits cruel or degrading treatment. I'm not sure if these are supposed to be lesser forms on the torture scale or just other similar categories the document wanted to encompass, but I'm wondering what we are specifically supposed to take from this right? Degrading treatment. Is jailing a homeless man for loitering degrading? Or is it simply necessary? What about having social workers hound those on welfare, constantly evaluating their need? Is prohibiting someone without a roof access to sleep in our public parks cruel, or just necessary for the upkeep of societal standards?

Article three grants the right to security of person. What does that mean? Certainly, it implies some security from government intervention in one's private life, but security seems far more broad. Does security include shelter as a subheading? I certainly feel like a shelter is the most fundamental form of security. If so, how is it that homeless people are allowed to exist as such? If our country is in compliance with UDHR, shouldn't it homing the homeless left and right. Certainly there are shelters, but do those fall under the category of security really?

My last thought strain. These last two paragraphs I obviously lead the reader to understand I was a bit dubious of the relationship between UDHR and American reality. However, I also have to ask, "At what point is the government no longer responsible for a citizen?" These articles are rights, but this is also a country of personal liberties. Is the government absolutely responsible for a baseline standard of living for everyone, or can an individual lose access to that right through personal folly?


  1. You bring up several interesting questions, Ryley. To address your last question, I think that individuals can lose access to certain rights, but definitely not all. For example, Article 21 of the UDHR states that “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives,” yet convicted felons in the US can be denied voting rights, depending on state law. While felons may lose certain political rights, the denial of a right to a baseline standard of living (food, water, shelter, clothing) would be considered cruel and unusual punishment. No matter how serious the crime committed, I don’t think a person can ever lose the right to a baseline standard of living (even though we don’t have a clear definition of what that standard is).

  2. Like you, I’ve started to realize more and more that the study of human rights issues is inevitably concerned with the evaluation of gray areas. One thing I know is that we can’t justify violating the UDHR’s proposed rights with “necessity”, like you cited in the example of incarcerating a homeless man. Torture can easily be argued to be “necessary”, as well as discriminatory practices and other examples of common rights violations. This post and Shannon’s last comment in particular make us question not the validity of human rights as spelled out in the UDHR, but their applicability. The tricky part lies in moving beyond an agreed declaration of human rights to taking part in actions that uphold, defend and protect rights.


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