Governments and various civic groups around the globe are celebrating Human Rights Day today to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by UN member states on this day in 1948.
This declaration codifies thirty articles that refer to the basic rights people have as human beings anywhere and at any time. Such rights are to be respected universally and unconditionally. They include, among others, the right to life; equality before the law; the right to a fair trial; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; as well as freedom of opinion and expression. Human rights express democratic values.
This year’s Human Rights Day is dedicated to human rights defenders who often work at great personal risk to end human rights violations by officials representing political power. Naturally, governments without democratic legitimacy do not commemorate this day; they are afraid of human rights defenders. China, for example, puts them into prison regularly, as is the case with this year’s Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波).
Human rights have been developing since 1948: They have become more specific; their reach has been expanded (clean environment; economic justice) and they have been increasingly integrated into the legal provisions of national legislations.
There is also a growing public awareness of human rights issues. Taiwan is an example of such a development. Public discussions on environmental protection, social justice or on the legitimacy of capital punishment are intensifying in this nation, opening new venues for further social and political reforms in the spirit of human rights.
These developments are encouraging, though it remains to be seen to how far and how fast these debates go toward changing domestic policies and, equally important, to changing Taiwanese minds. Laws or good intentions are often not enough to bring what is written down on paper into reality — the frequent breaching of traffic rules is but one example.
There is still a way to go to bring about a stronger sense of “civic-mindedness” that would “raise the level of human rights in Taiwan” — President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration’s openly declared political and educational objective.
Indeed, human rights and education are closely related, and civic-mindedness plays a crucial role in this modern relationship, just like the fostering of a “strong character” among citizens, a term likewise invoked by the administration. However, what do these terms mean in this context?
A glance at the Universal Declaration might help: Article 26.2 stipulates that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality.”
There is no definition of what “full development” would precisely mean here. However, it is safe to say that a reasonable definition would have to include a person’s ability to critically assess whatever is somehow related to him or her, personally or professionally; to distinguish between sound and unsound arguments; to form an opinion and be outspoken if necessary; and to select relevant information from an ocean of available data and transform it into arguments within ever-changing contexts.
The world of knowledge is as open as the world of individual development, but only critical distance guarantees the use of such openness toward change.