December 21, 2018

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Still Relevant Today

Yevgen Zakharov started fighting for human rights in the 1970s.

In the Soviet Union, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, was considered banned literature because its contents contrasted sharply with the Soviet reality, according to Yevgen Zakharov (66), one of the best-known human rights advocates in contemporary Ukraine and head of the local Helsinki group, who joined dissident circles in Harkiv in the early 1970s when still a youngster. He spoke to Diplomaatia in Kyiv.


Diplomaatia: How important was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Soviet dissidents?

Zakharov: Very important. It was, in essence, an anti-Soviet document. The KGB [the Soviet Union’s all-powerful and feared security agency] especially thought so. When a copy of the declaration was found during a house-search, it was confiscated.


Were people imprisoned for owning a copy?

No one was put away simply for holding a copy. However, as a rule, if a person was found with the declaration, they were bound to have some other prohibited item whose possession was categorised as a criminal offence. For instance, I know that a copy was taken from Aleksandr Jessenin-Volpin during a search. Volpin was the ideological brains behind the entire human rights protection movement in the Soviet Union. He organised the initiative as well as the first human rights protest in Moscow, in Red Square on 5 October 1965.


Was the declaration ever published in the Soviet Union?

It was, but in a highly specialised publication intended for the foreign ministry and the country’s top leadership. It was never printed in the mass media. Frankly, it was an obscure document in the Soviet Union outside specialist circles.

Let me emphasise that when the declaration was adopted on 10 December 1948, the Soviet Union and its satellites didn’t participate in the vote. The document was adopted only owing to the flexibility of the Allies. The UN intended to adopt a declaratory document that would show what human society should ideally look like and which would prevent violence against people. It also wanted to create a related convention that the states who signed and ratified it would have been required to implement.

The Soviet Union, however, thought from the start that all human rights were bourgeois and figments of the bourgeoisie’s imagination that no one needed anyway. They thought the right to a place of residence, the right to work and social security, the right to free education and medical aid, etc. were real rights. The Western states, who had been allies of the Soviet Union during the war, settled for a compromise. The initial version of the declaration didn’t include the positive, so-called second-generation rights that the Soviet Union demanded, but only classic negative rights, i.e. restrictions imposed on a country regarding the human rights that a state was not to breach. According to the liberal understanding, these are the real human rights. The Soviet Union demanded that the declaration be supplemented and expanded. That’s everything that comes after Article 21. The declaration was put to the vote in the UN section by section. The Soviet Union voted against the first 20 articles that cover civil and political rights, and in favour of the remaining articles on social and cultural rights. When the whole declaration was put to the vote, the Soviet Union didn’t participate.


Why did the Soviet Union hide the declaration from its people? Why couldn’t you read it? It featured more or less the same things that were covered in the so-called excellent Soviet constitution.

Yes, but the Soviet Union didn’t intend to fulfil its constitution. The leadership of the Communist Party didn’t need an internationally authoritative declaration because it included political and civil rights and freedoms. The entire ideology and way of life of the Soviet state were in direct conflict with the declaration. Practically no civic initiatives launched from the grass-roots level were allowed in the Soviet Union. Even when they did emerge, attempts were made to move them under the wing of the Komsomol youth organisation or the party.

There was a Ukrainian activist called Ivan Kandyba [one of the best-known Ukrainian human rights activists during Soviet times, a founding member of the Helsinki group, who was imprisoned several times. In 1981 he was convicted and received a ten-year prison sentence.—JP]. While in custody, he copied the declaration out by hand. He was punished and taken to the lock-up, and the copied text was taken away. He copied it again. In Soviet times, texts were distributed among people with the help of samizdat copies. [Samizdat was a Soviet phenomenon; banned texts were copied out by hand and passed from person to person.—JP]


When did the declaration start to be spread through the Soviet Union via samizdat copies?

Samizdat as a phenomenon began in 1959, when Alexander Ginzburg and Vladimir Bukovksy started to publish the [literary] magazine Sintaksis. Then writings about Joseph Brodsky’s trial, at the conclusion of which he was declared a freeloader, started to be published through samizdat. [The then future winner of the Nobel Prize for literature was convicted and sentenced to five years’ exile and hard labour for “social parasitism” in 1964. The judge asked a now famous question during the trial: “Who has recognised you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?”, to which the 23-year-old Brodsky replied, even more famously: “No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?”—JP] Until 1965, only samizdat issues were available of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls [officially published in the Soviet Union in 1968 in Russian, and in Estonian in 1970] and Lidiya Ginzburg’s memoirs [about Stalin-era prison camps] called Journey into the Whirlwind . I read these when I was a child.


Where did the first human rights advocates in the Soviet Union get the text of the declaration, given that it was not published and the USSR was a closed state?

We must bear in mind that they were all very cultured people and could read in English and French. They knew many diplomats in Moscow. To be honest, the people surrounding the power structures in Moscow really didn’t hide their views, either. Let be give an example. A magazine called Amerika (Америка) spread in Moscow [This was published in Russian by the US Department of State and was meant to be circulated in the Soviet Union to demonstrate the American lifestyle.—JP] and one could also order it, but it was available to a very limited number of people starting from the first secretary of district committees of the Communist Party. The children of party officials read the magazine and it changed many people’s outlook on life. The first generation of human rights activists could easily get the text through their acquaintances from an official journal. For example, there used to be a large agency in Moscow called the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences. It translated texts from English and German and published authors who were considered anti-Soviet: Max Weber, Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger. The agency compiled synopses of the texts for the party leaders. Many of my friends and acquaintances worked there. And what did they do? They made samizdat copies of the banned books they translated for the party leadership, and circulated them! Through them, I read a lot of Western classics in the fields of sociology and political science in the 1970s. Of course, some things were unavailable but at the same time a closed circle of people read all those texts and spread them.


I have read that Soviet dissidents often referred to the declaration in their speeches around the world. That was one good thing about it.

They did. They referred to it as a legal document that described how things should have been [in the Soviet Union]. People knew that it was declaratory, of course, and that UN member states were not required to implement it. It was quoted in a context that allowed them to refer to the USSR’s constitution and international law.


Evhen Zahharov first read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a samizdat edition. Jaanus Piirsalu

The declaration was adopted at the UN 70 years ago. Do you think it is still relevant in today’s world?

It is. Another thing is that the importance of human rights has changed. In the 1970s, human rights were a very relevant factor in international politics. Human rights were extremely important for [US president] Jimmy Carter’s administration [1977–81], for example. Back then, people paid close attention to human rights. When a country breached those rights, it was automatically considered a pariah and no one had dealings with it [on the international level]. Today, human rights don’t have such a high priority. The terrorist threat and the need to fight it has pushed human rights into the background, since security and safety are considered more important nowadays. To guarantee security, it is deemed acceptable to make concessions over human rights that would not have been approved in the past. Nevertheless, I think the rights are still quite important. There is nothing worse for a human being than to be dependent on another person’s will. Human rights protect a person’s right to be free, and this is why they’re still important.


Should the declaration be rewritten or amended to reflect modern realities?

The first part of the declaration is alright; all those principles are relevant today as well. However, I don’t think much of the so-called second-generation rights. I think the first 20 articles cover true human rights, not the last ten. The provenance of the economic, social and cultural human rights (the so-called positive rights) is completely different. These are the things a state promises to its citizens. States vow to provide a good life: grant somewhere to live, guarantee a dignified old age and adequate living standards, etc.

But those rights don’t concern everyone. For example, how does the right to rest and leisure affect an independent artist who works for no one? What is an “adequate standard of living” and who defines it? They should specify in writing that it means a minimum shopping basket. These are what people are interested in, rather than rights. Second-generation human rights can be only realised through the authority of the state. In reality, this encourages paternalism in people: we need this, so they must give it to us and we are waiting for them to provide it all to us. I believe it is more important that everyone should decide for themselves how to live. The American principle that everyone has the right to life and the pursuit of happiness is much closer to my views than second-generation human rights. I don’t think a state is capable of providing all that to the people—it won’t guarantee anything! My experience of life shows that when a state collects resources from the people and starts to redistribute them “fairly”, no one has actually managed to do so. Such an approach can only create an unsustainable economy. I’m not saying that second-generation human rights are completely pointless, but I do think they need to be reworded. They can’t be formulated as universal guarantees.


Looking at the first 20 rights, which cannot be restricted by the authorities, which freedoms face the greatest problems in the world today?

It depends. First-generation rights guarantee people’s liberties and states are prohibited from restricting these freedoms. Different countries have issues with different freedoms. Wealthier nations, for example, have no problem with the right to life. One the other hand, in Ukraine we have a war going on, and the right to life is greatly endangered. More than 10,400 people have already been killed in the war. For us, another important issue is the fact that no one should be subjected to arbitrary arrest. In Ukraine, the Soviet principle that a person may be detained without a court ruling is still going strong: you can detain a person without a court ruling for a maximum of three days, but this requirement is ignored and sidestepped. We have a concept called preventative arrest [without a court ruling] that may be applied for 30 days. It’s because of the war. I believe this is a gross breach of human rights.


What is the state of human rights in general in Ukraine, especially during a war that has already lasted five years?

When we compare the situation to Soviet times, things have naturally improved because no civil activism was allowed back then. You could get three years of detention for copying banned literature. Nowadays the war is, of course, making our situation worse.


If we leave aside the war and the restrictions on human rights flowing from it—which are, in a sense, justified—how are things in Ukraine?

We have several systemic problems, e.g. the illegal and excessive use of force by the law-enforcement authorities: torture and cruel treatment of people. Ukraine is one of the countries where the law-enforcement authorities use torture; it’s unfortunate but true. The gap between rich and poor is huge. I mean the people who can’t look after themselves: the sick, the disabled, children, the elderly. A society in which 5% of the people own 98% of the assets is not normal.


The acid attack on activist Katya Gandzyuk, who later died in hospital, has been causing outrage this autumn in Ukraine. She’s not the only one: many civil activists have been assaulted in the past few years, and there have been murders. Do you agree with the claim that civil activists are being hunted down with impunity and the state is choosing not to see it?

I don’t. Gandzyuk hadn’t been a civil activist for long. For the past three years, she worked as a relatively senior city official in Kherson. Secondly, the assault was motivated by personal revenge and the idiots who did it didn’t mean to kill her, they just wanted to frighten her. In Ukraine, we don’t have intentional intimidation, like in Russia and Belarus. It has been claimed that 55 activists have been beaten up [in Ukraine]. I looked at these cases and some were, indeed, so-called right-wing extremists fighting with so-called leftists. In other cases, the assaults were clearly over business disputes. I don’t like it when people exaggerate about this subject.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.