The most important part of the Vienna Declaration is Part II, the statement of principles. And the key to grasping the grave problems of Part II is to notice, as Sherlock Holmes did, the dog that didn’t bark—the affirmations that were not made.
The Vienna Declaration affirms the “right of self-determination,” the “right to development,” and the “right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress,” while hinting broadly at a Third World “right” to debt relief (meaning debt cancellation). It condemns toxic-waste dumping in Third World sites (no doubt a problem) as a human rights violation. And it finds ample room in which to praise indigenous peoples, disabled people, migrant workers, and refugees (all of whom are frequently abused).
But the Vienna Declaration contains no clear articulation of the basic human rights of:
- religious freedom, or
- freedom of association, or
- freedom of assembly, or
- freedom of the press.
Which is to say, the Vienna Declaration is not serious business.
The entire experience of the twentieth century testifies to the fact that civil rights and political freedoms are the bedrock of any meaningful scheme of human rights. For there can be no effective protection of basic human rights without transparency in government, without a constitutional codification of the fundamental and inalienable rights of persons, and without a clear, unambiguous recognition that society exists prior to the state, and that the state exists to serve society, not vice versa. Yet this historical experience, in societies that are both the most free and the most prosperous in human history, was virtually ignored in the Vienna Declaration.
A “human rights declaration” that fails to reaffirm the priority of basic civil rights and political freedoms is, at best, a confession of ignorance and a self-consignment to irrelevance. But the Vienna Declaration took shape not in a political vacuum but in the political and ideological context established by the Bangkok Declaration, which was nothing less than a declaration of war against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the Vienna Final Document to take so accommodating a position toward this agenda embedded in the Bangkok Declaration makes it worse than irrelevant: the Vienna document must be considered dangerous, an actual threat to the protection of human rights.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.