In his introduction to a major series of new writing in The Irish Times marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Seamus Heaneyreflects on how the Declaration's 30 Articles remain a profound force for historical good
In an essay published in 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Thomas Buergenthal, a former President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, drew an important distinction. He pointed out that whereas the original Charter of the United Nations internationalised human rights as a legal concept, the subsequent Universal Declaration gave the concept moral force.
When the Declaration was being framed in 1948, several of the UN member states were, for better or worse reasons, against a document that would be legally binding, with the result that the text is more akin to an exhortation than an edict. And yet, as Buergenthal also pointed out, it is the "eloquent, expansive and simple" nature of the language in the document which has proved most potent in the long run - as is evident from the brief First Article:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
In the boldness and buoyancy of these words there are echoes of many of the great foundational texts of western civilisation, from Sophocles' "wonders of man" chorus through Christ's Sermon on the Mount on up to the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. So even if this First Article cannot guarantee what it declares, if its writ cannot be made to run in China or Zimbabwe or Guantánamo, it nevertheless gestures so confidently towards what human beings desire that it fortifies a conviction that the desirable can in fact be realised.
Over the past 60 years, of course, the philosophical basis of the Declaration in the western tradition has been contested, and increasingly so in the post-9/11 period, when a "clash of civilisations" has been touted as the future way of the world. Even though the initial emphasis on "brotherhood" is a reminder that the individual operates in a community, adversaries claim that the western concept is excessively individualistic and neglects community solidarity and cultural diversity. Yet it seems to me that this problematic truth can be acknowledged without relinquishing belief in the larger overall good which the Declaration has effected.
Since it was framed, the Declaration has succeeded in creating an international moral consensus. It is always there as a means of highlighting abuse if not always as a remedy: it exists instead in the moral imagination as an equivalent of the gold standard in the monetary system. The articulation of its tenets has made them into world currency of a negotiable sort. Even if its Articles are ignored or flouted - in many cases by governments who have signed up to them - it provides a worldwide amplification system for "the still, small voice".
Thus, Vaclav Havel can concede that in the decades since the Universal Declaration was adopted by the UN, human rights have been repeatedly violated or suppressed in many countries; yet he can also argue that these breaches of its principles have been far outweighed by the historic importance of the global covenant which it represents. It is, he says, "an instrument holding up a mirror to the misery of the world".
In that image, which echoes Hamlet's claim that plays and players "hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature", we hear the voice of Havel the dramatist as much as the voice of Havel the former prisoner and victim of human rights abuse in a totalitarian system. We hear, in effect, the voice of the artist gaining on the voice of the activist, so it comes as no surprise to find him concluding that the roots of human rights lie deeper than the world of human covenants. They are far more profound than contracts between governments and have their origin in the metaphysical. How else, indeed, could the document enshrine words like "dignity" and "conscience", words that strain against the bonds of legal definition and political categorisation?
The 30 articles of the Declaration, many of which are couched in a perfectly secular, civic idiom, do essentially rest upon this numinous, vestigially religious foundation. They were formulated at an opportune historical moment, by the representatives of peoples in shock at what had happened in the course of the second World War, and ever since they have remained a force for historical good. Even in a world riven by fundamentalisms east and west, they persist as an audible, creditable and potentially credible strain.
Flouted though the Articles have been and continue to be, their vulnerability should perhaps be regarded as an earnest of their ultimate value. If, for example, an effort were to be made to enforce them by the exercise of military power - as in the effort to enforce "democracy" on Iraq - it would not only end in failure but would discredit utterly the very concept of human rights. They would be stigmatised as the attributes of an imperium rather than an inherent endowment of the species.
It is this vulnerable yet spiritually inviolate quality which makes them attractive not only to the wronged and the oppressed of the Earth, but to writers and poets as well. The Universal Declaration is not a sure-fire panacea for the world's ills; it is more geared to effect what I once called "the redress of poetry" than to intervene like a superpower. This idea of redress I discovered first in Simone Weil's book, Gravity and Grace, where she observes that if we know the way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter side of the scale. The Universal Declaration, it seems to me, adds this kind of weight and contributes thereby to the maintenance of an equilibrium - never entirely achieved - between the rights and wrongs.
Writers and poets are also capable of adding this kind of weight, as will be evident in the work of contributors to the series which this newspaper is organising in the weeks ahead. I expect, however, that when they are faced with the direct speech of the Declaration, many of them will proceed indirectly. They too will want to conjure up work that functions as a counterweight to the given actuality of the world. The writings they place in the scale may only be imagined, but if the imagining is credible, if it persuades us to suspend our disbelief, it will be part of the redress that human dignity, human rights, human reason, human consciousness all desire and deserve.
It is also a fact, however, that when it comes to creating work in support of a morally laudable cause or in response to an uplifting theme, writers and poets face a difficulty peculiar to their calling. They are not like speakers at a podium or preachers in a pulpit. Because of the artistic imperative they obey, they must do more than utter a commendable sentiment. They must make a thing of words, construct "a verbal contraption".
It is not enough for creative writers to be what Osip Mandelstam once called "purveyors of the paraphrasable meaning", even if they happen to be paraphrasing the Universal Declaration; not enough merely to repeat what Joyce called "the big words", even words like "dignity" and "conscience"; not enough to have the will doing the work of the imagination. Some kind of turn or twist or swerve, some shift in the mind or the medium has to occur, some little startle of insight or originality that may prompt the composition of a short lyric or the invention of an entire world - as in Animal Farm.
When, for example, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska contributed a poem entitle Tortures to Reflections on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a 50th anniversary anthology which also included the essays of Havel and Buergenthal, she ended up by inverting a truth that has been regarded for millennia as self-evident. After four stanzas of relentless enumeration of the body's susceptibility to pain, of claims that nothing has changed, that in torture "it still trembles as it trembled/before Rome was founded and after", that it still "bruises, swells, drools and bleeds", Szymborska comes to the unexpected, heartbreaking conclusion that amid these landscapes of pain it is not the soul but the body which somehow proves everlasting:
The little soul roams among those
disappears, returns, draws near, moves
evasive and a stranger to itself,
now sure, now uncertain of its own
whereas the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.
The anthology (edited by Barend van der Heidjen and Bahia Tahzib-Lie, published by Kluwer Law International) also included From the Republic of Conscience, a poem I managed to write in 1985 when I was asked to contribute something to mark the year's United Nations Day. The request came from Mary Lawlor, the secretary of the local Sandymount branch of Amnesty International and now the Irish director of Front Line, the organisation which works for the protection of human rights defenders, worldwide.
Mary's request was accompanied by a dossier containing the case histories of prisoners of conscience who had suffered everything from censorship and harassment to incarceration and torture, so I had a strong desire to come up with something good enough for the pamphlet Amnesty intended to publish. But I could find no way to invent "a verbal contraption" that would be anywhere near as strong as the record of injustice and pain in those resolutely unpoetic press releases, and after a couple of weeks I wrote back to say I was unable to deliver.
But this removal of the sense of obligation shortened the creative odds: once the weight of the commission lifted, conditions were less earnest, less duty bound. Anxiety about measuring up to the grim evidence disappeared, replaced by a mood that was both apt and absolved, more susceptible to the spirit of play. Almost immediately I thought of an exercise I had set my writing students in Harvard the previous semester. I had asked them to imagine and describe a country that might stand as an allegory for some emotion or state of mind, so I now set myself the same exercise; make up a country called "Conscience".
I took it that Conscience would be a republic, a silent, solitary place where a person would find it hard to avoid self-awareness and self-examination; and this made me think of Orkney. I remembered the silence the first time I landed there. When I got off the small propeller plane and started walking across the grass to a little arrivals hut, I heard the cry of a curlew. And as soon as that image came to me, I was up and away, able to proceed with a fiction that felt workable yet unconstrained, a made-up thing that might be hung in the scale as a counterweight to the given actuality of the world.
This essay by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney will be followed over the coming Saturdays by a series in which Irish writers will mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchy, Neil Jordan, Joseph O'Connor and Anne Enright are among those who have donated their time and creativity to the series created by Amnesty International Irish Section, in association with The Irish Times. Each week will feature one of the 30 articles of the Declaration and a writer's response to, or interpretation, of it.
Seamus Heaney's From the Republic of Conscience was first commissioned and published by Amnesty Ireland in 1985 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the organisation.