01-03-2006 - Traces, n.3

Italy Conference

New Rights?
The Lobbyists’ Game

“Human Rights at the Dawn of the Third Millenium”: thoughts on this topic by Mary Ann Glendon, President of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences

by Luca Antonini

In Europe, we have been seeing the increasingly widespread phenomena of the proliferation of new rights. In the family, the couple, illness or death, there has been the questionable tendency to use the quality of a “right” to describe aspects of life for which such a term really does not apply. It would be more accurate to talk about possibilities, options, or faculties. Instead, we are seeing the proliferation of “insatiable rights,” with all sorts of groups demanding “their right,” forgetting that every new right creates a new and correlating duty for someone else, or, in any case, cuts into other values. “The dream of universal human rights, paid for with the blood of freedom’s martyrs, risks dissolving into scattered rights of personal autonomy,” a cacophony in which “the dignitarian vision of human rights is under assault,” in the words of Mary Ann Glendon, one of the most illustrious American scholars (who teaches Constitutional Law at Harvard and is President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences), on the occasion of the recent conference on “Human Rights at the Dawn of the Third Millenium”, organized by the Chair of Constitutional Law at the University of Padua and Treviso, with the sponsorship of the newly formed Novae Terrae Foundation and of the Foundation for Subsidiarity.

Modern subjectivism
Other distinguished speakers at the conference (among them, Buttiglione, Grossi, Ornaghi, Barbera, Violini, Gentile, and Carozza) highlighted how the crisis of rights is actually a crisis of the subject, that is, it derives from a certain exasperated modern subjectivism. Glendon decried dynamics that the common man often is unaware of when he reflects on the rights of the “more advanced societies,” feeling himself quickly accused of antidemocratic obscurantism if he in conscience dares to voice any discomfort at the new frontiers of homosexual marriage, related adoptions, and so on. Instead, according to Glendon, the true antidemocratic action has been the way these new rights have been presented and inculcated in public opinion. She reminded her listeners how the “dignitarian vision” of rights was the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, developed on the model of the post-war European constitutions, centered on human dignity. Using this model, the UDHR is a unitary system that revolves around human dignity. But in the 1970s, a harsh attack on this approach began, and the UDHR was reduced to a simple menu from which to select individual rights. In the beginning, this process was also furthered by various sentences from the American courts. An exceptional opportunity was thus afforded the rich and powerful interest groups, and from that moment on, Glendon asserts, “Special interest groups of all sorts were quick to seize the opportunity to press their agendas in the courts rather than to try to persuade their fellow citizens through ordinary democratic political processes.”

Common traditions
Thus the lobbies captured and bent to their own purposes the prestige of the project on universal human rights. This tactic was uncovered in the 1990s, when the European delegation at the UN Conference in Peking proposed removing the word “dignity” from the conference documents, together with all references in the UDHR to matrimony, family, religious freedom, and parents’ rights. “That European delegates should be leading this assault was nothing short of astonishing, in view of the fact that the language they sought to remove from the UN documents was almost identical to constitutional provisions in most of their own home countries!”
But this is exactly the tactic of the powerful lobbies, to create “offshore manufacturing sites where their programs could be packaged as new rights, and sent home under the label ‘international norms.’” According to Glendon, in this way the declarations of human rights risk becoming mere lists from which this or that interest group tries to pick out of context and absolutize its own right.