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Rights of Passage

A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

by Mary Ann Glendon
(Random House, 333 pp., $25.95)

Are rights universal? Can diverse people, across religious and ethnic differences, agree about what rights people have? Might it be possible to produce agreements about the content of rights among people from different nations--not simply England, America, Germany, and France, but China, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India, Iran, Kenya, Egypt, Uganda, Cuba, and Japan, too? What would such an agreement look like? What rights would it recognize?

It is tempting to say that if people are going to accept a certain catalogue of rights, then they must think first about what rights are, and about why rights exist in the first place. They might ask whether rights come from God or from nature, or stem from an understanding of what makes human lives good, or are instruments for promoting social welfare. But people from different traditions and nations will have a lot of difficulty in agreeing on issues of this kind. This was in fact the experience of those who attempted to design the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written and adopted by the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II. Consider the views of Jacques Maritain, a philosopher who participated in some of the deliberations that led to the Declaration. Responding to public astonishment that people of radically opposed views had agreed on rights, Maritain liked to say: "Yes, we agree about the rights, but on condition that no one asks us why." According to Maritain, the only feasible goal was to produce agreement "not on the basis of common speculative ideas, but on common practical ideas, not on the affirmation of one and the same conception of the world, of man, and of knowledge, but upon the affirmation of a single body of beliefs for guidance on action."

Mary Ann Glendon has written an illuminating and unexpectedly timely book about the Declaration. Glendon believes that the Declaration produced a genuinely new understanding of rights, stemming from its drafters' belief in the crucial interdependence of the newer social and economic rights (social security, food, clothing, housing, and medical care) and the older protections against government intrusion (free speech, religious liberty, freedom from torture and abuse of the criminal justice system). The newer rights were championed above all by the Soviet bloc, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt had supported them, too, in 1944, when he called for a "Second Bill of Rights"; and the United States endorsed their presence in the Declaration.

Glendon acknowledges that by itself the Declaration is only that: a declaration, mere words, an unenforceable text--without the binding effect of international law. And yet she believes that it has proved exceptionally important in practice, helping to inspire dissidents and activists all over the world, and actually producing language that has been used verbatim in new constitutions, especially in Eastern Europe. She also believes that the Declaration may be especially useful as a foundation for similar charters of newly free societies across the globe, because it shrewdly combines agnosticism on certain unresolvable issues with an elaborate set of protections for both individuals and groups.

Glendon's discussion comes in three parts. The first and by far the longest is a sustained narrative account of the writing and the adoption of the Declaration. The story that she tells deserves to be widely known. The book's second part is a brief analysis of the rights recognized by the Declaration--rights that are instructively and greatly different from the rights to which Americans have become accustomed. The third part deals with the subsequent history of the Declaration, including its large role in constitution-making in the late twentieth century and the increasingly intense objections that it has produced from those who maintain that it is irredeemably Western. Let us begin with her historical narrative.

In the aftermath of World War II, and after the death of Roosevelt, the young United Nations embarked on the project of cataloguing a set of universal human rights. Of course the Nazi experience loomed large, but the people behind the project wanted to produce a document that outran the particular circumstances. By far the most prominent and controversial American delegate was Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been appointed by President Truman. She was reluctant to accept the job: "How could I be a delegate to help organize the United Nations when I have no background or experience in international meetings?" Yet she was unanimously elected as chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, established in June 1946 with the initial goal of producing of a bill of human rights. The commissioners included representatives from eighteen nations, including Australia, Belgium, Chile, Cuba, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, the United States, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia. P.C. Chang, head of the Chinese delegation at the United Nations, was selected as vice-chairman. Charles Malik of Lebanon was chosen as secretary, with the responsibility of producing official reports on the work of the commission. Roosevelt, Chang, and Malik were to become central figures in a long drama.

As Glendon describes them, the initial meetings of the commission were rocky and unpromising. A hotly disputed issue involved implementation: who would enforce a bill of rights? Hansa Mehta of India, among others, argued that such a bill would be meaningless without an enforcement mechanism. Roosevelt responded with the American approach, which combined enthusiasm for a statement of basic principles with skepticism about enforcement. (As we will see, the American position in this count has remained consistent over the last fifty years and more.)

But the debates over philosophical issues were even more heated. Chang supported a substantive preamble, establishing a basic principle "with a view to elevating the concept of man's dignity." At this stage things started to break down. Malik urged that the topic of human rights raised "the fundamental question, what is man?" Disagreements about human rights, according to Malik, reflected disagreements over the questions: "Is man merely a social being? Is he merely an animal? Is he merely an economic being?"

This was not a helpful beginning. Yugoslavia's delegate offered some Soviet-style platitudes, insisting that liberty required "perfect harmony between the individual and the community" and that "a modern declaration of rights should not only consider the rights favored by the ruling classes." In his view, "the social principle comes first." Malik vehemently disagreed, urging that the "deepest danger of the age" involves the extinction of individuality. He argued that the commission should agree that "the human being is more important than any national or cultural group to which he may belong" and that "a person's mind and conscience are his most sacred and inviolable possessions." The Soviet representative predictably demurred.

It became clear that a written document could not be produced by the full commission, which therefore assigned to just four delegates (Roosevelt, Chang, Malik, and the Canadian John Humphrey) the job of producing a "preliminary draft" of an international bill of rights. Humphrey was asked to draw up an initial version. By the time of the next meeting four months later, Humphrey and his staff had accomplished their task.

Having consulted a wide range of ideas and traditions, they were especially influenced by the "Statement of Essential Human Rights" that was produced in 1944 by the American Law Institute, and by the draft of the Pan-American Declaration, which was then under consideration in Latin America. Humphrey's unruly, heterogeneous document was really just a list, including no fewer than fortyeight items meant to capture the common core of the documents and the proposals consulted by his staff. Despite its lack of organization, Glendon thinks that the result was an impressive "distillation of nearly two hundred years of efforts to articulate the most basic human values in terms of rights."

The distillation included and affirmed the political and civil rights familiar within the Anglo-American and French traditions, such as freedom of speech, religion, movement, and assembly, and protection of life, liberty, and property. These are typically described as "first generation" rights. But Humphrey's draft also included the "second generation" economic and social rights found in the constitutions of the Soviet Union, Norway, and some Latin American countries, including the right to work, to education, and to basic subsistence.

The draft met with a mixed reaction within the commission. The delegate from the United Kingdom objected that second-generation rights could not possibly be enforced. Making a point that he would repeat over and over again, the Soviet delegate complained that certain rights--including the right to freedom of movement--were a threat to national sovereignty. In the midst of these and other disagreements, it was suggested that a revision, if possible agreeable to all sides, should be produced by Rene Cassin, the French delegate and a distinguished jurist who had a great deal of experience in the drafting of legislation. In Glendon's account, Cassin's draft amounted to the core of the document that was eventually approved.

Cassin "preserved most of the substantive content of Humphrey's draft, but under his hand the document acquired an internal logic and achieved greater unity," separating various rights into intelligible categories and offering a sense of their mutual dependence. Glendon describes Cassin's achievement this way: "By fusing rights from an older tradition of political and civil liberty to those reflecting a more modern preoccupation with social and economic need, by providing both sets of rights with an interpretive framework, and by declaring that all these rights belonged to everyone, everywhere, the Declaration was bringing something new into the world." Cassin also produced a new preamble and provided six general principles to guide interpretation of specific provisions. Of special importance was his attempt to produce "a formula that did not require the Commission to take sides on the nature of man and society, or to become [immersed] in metaphysical controversies."

At the same time, deliberations were occurring within the philosophers' Committee on the Theoretical Bases of Human Rights (those were the days!) of the U.N.'s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The philosophers' committee was moving in exactly the same direction as the Human Rights Commission, toward a catalogue of rights unaccompanied by any inquiry into "theoretical bases." A questionnaire about the nature and the content of human rights had been sent to people with American, European, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and other perspectives; and many of the most famous contemporary philosophers, statesmen, and theologians were consulted. Non-Western respondents urged that while the term "rights" was not part of their tradition, something close to the basic idea was hardly unfamiliar. An Indian political scientist contended that Hindu thinkers had "propounded a code, as it were, of ten essential freedoms and controls or virtues necessary for good life." In the words of a Confucian philosopher, the "idea of human rights developed very early in China." Another philosopher said early Islam had "succeeded in overcoming distinctions of race and colour to an extent experienced neither before nor since"; and he complained that the flaw in the Western conception of rights lay only in the fact that it was an aspiration rather than a reality.

Of course, there were significant cultural differences. Asian respondents emphasized the need to include duties, and not merely rights, in any universal declaration. The "basic ethical concept of Chinese social political relations is the fulfillment of the duty to one's neighbor, rather than the claiming of rights." Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote: "I learned from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world." And several Europeans agreed on the importance of emphasizing duties as well as rights.

All these disagreements notwithstanding, Glendon finds that the surveys "indicated that the principles underlying the draft Declaration were present in many cultural and religious traditions, though not always expressed in terms of rights." The list of shared norms comprised first-generation rights and second-generation rights, including the right to self-expression, the right to fair procedures, the right to freedom of speech and worship, and also the right to work, the right to social assistance in cases of need, and the right to protection of health. Thus the philosophers found "common convictions" that were supported by "divergent political and economic systems" and "different philosophic principles."

With the general support of the philosophers' committee, Cassin's draft was presented at the commission's next meeting. Again a central debate involved issues of implementation. Many nations, including France, Lebanon, and Cuba, argued that the Declaration would be meaningless without some kind of international human rights court or monitoring agency. But an unusual alliance emerged: the world's two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, sought to block any commitment to an enforcement mechanism. The obvious reason was that both nations feared that such a mechanism would produce embarrassment and potentially worse--what Soviet and Yugoslav representatives described as "a kind of world government, placed above national sovereignty."

The substance of Cassin's draft was engaged along several dimensions. Inspired perhaps by Thomas Jefferson's own Declaration, Malik proposed that the first article should say that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Cassin responded that a reference to God would subvert the document's universality. Mehta disliked the draft's suggestion that "all men" should enjoy the relevant rights; she thought that this terminology would exclude women. Roosevelt disagreed, saying that "all men" would include everyone.

The most intense arguments involved the social and economic rights, now including the right to work, to education, to rest and leisure, to an adequate standard of living, and to security in unemployment and old age. The United Kingdom opposed any such list. But, again, Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself had proposed a "Second Bill of Rights" of just this kind; and on America's behalf his widow endorsed the basic idea, urging that "men in need were not free men." For its part, the Soviet Union objected to "any language that would appear to relegate social and economic rights to an inferior rank." After sustained debate, the conflict between skeptics and enthusiasts was essentially resolved through a new provision saying that social and economic rights would be implemented "in accordance with the organization and resources of each State."

The work of the Human Rights Commission came before the United Nations in the fall of 1948. The Soviet representative, sounding like a broken record, re-launched his general objection, emphasizing the importance of national sovereignty. The discussion of particular provisions turned out to be hilariously tedious, a parody of the United Nations to come. Early on, Canada's Humphrey wrote to his sister: "I have heard so many of these speeches that it is only in revolt that I can hope to find sanity. We have been on this thing for three weeks now and have adopted two out of the twenty-eight articles." The Brazilian delegation wanted to add that "all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God." Others wanted to say that human beings have certain rights "by nature." Chang succeeded in urging that neither "nature" nor "God" should be mentioned in explicit terms. South Africa objected to Article 2, which said (and says) that everyone "is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race...." The Soviet delegate sought a ban on the death penalty.

Saudi Arabia objected to several rights: to change one's religion, to enter into marriage "only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses," and to "equal rights both during marriage and at its dissolution." Sounding weirdly like Edmund Burke, the Saudi representative claimed that the Western standards "had ignored more ancient civilizations, which were past the experimental stage, and the institutions of which, for example marriage, had proved their wisdom through the centuries." It is notable, though, that the Muslim nations were not in agreement on this question. The delegates from Pakistan and Egypt were willing to accept the idea of "equal rights" to marriage; and Egypt (and also India) supported the right to change one's religion.

While the delegates supported the general idea of social and economic rights, intense disagreement continued over the details. The representatives of liberal democracies wanted to keep the provisions vague and flexible, whereas other delegates, especially from Communist nations, wanted more specificity and a clear statement of the government's affirmative role. A typical debate involved the right to work. The Soviets sought a provision expressly protecting against unemployment and providing a clear right to equal pay for equal work; Cuba proposed a right to a level of pay suitable for workers and their families. The United States opposed these changes, but they were adopted by large majorities.

With modest alterations, the resulting document was ready for adoption by the General Assembly. Introducing the Declaration, Malik emphasized that this was a genuinely global product, urging that each nation could identify places in the Declaration "where it could either find its own contributions or the influence of the culture to which it belonged." While India "played a key role in advancing the antidiscrimination principle, especially with regard to women," political and civil liberties owed a great deal to the work of the United States and the United Kingdom, and the social and economic rights were greatly influenced by the Soviet Union. Thus the Declaration had been produced on a "firm international basis wherein no regional philosophy or way of life was permitted to prevail." Ultimately the Declaration was approved with forty-eight positive votes, no negative votes, and eight abstentions (mostly Soviet bloc nations, invoking the theme of national sovereignty, but also South Africa and Saudi Arabia, breaking from the general approval of the Muslim nations).

Glendon offers an overview of the Declaration in its final form. It seems to be organized into four parts or (in Cassin's term) "columns." The first part creates a set of familiar Anglo-American rights, including bans on slavery, torture, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment; the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; the right to life, liberty, and security. The second and more original part describes rights to enter into, to maintain, and to leave relationships with both governments and persons. People are given the rights to freedom of movement within states, to leave states, to seek asylum from persecution, to marry and to found a family, to own property, and to be free from arbitrary interference with family, home, correspondence, and privacy. The third part protects the classic political rights (freedom of opinion, expression, and association) alongside the right to freedom of religion (expressly including the freedom to change religion).

The fourth "column" comprises a breathtaking catalogue of social and economic rights. Everyone is given not only the right to social security, but also the right to work, to just and favorable conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to rest and to leisure, to equal pay for equal work, to just and favorable remuneration ensuring an existence worthy of human dignity, to education, and to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services. The Declaration concludes with several provisions intended to cast light on the document in general. Thus people are given the right "to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms" in the Declaration "can be fully realized." Echoing the point made most emphatically by Asian participants, it is also said that everyone "has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible."

This, to say the least, is an ambitious set of rights. But what has happened to the Declaration over the past fifty years? In many nations, including those that agreed to it, it seems to have had little or no impact. Glendon emphasizes that within the United States, criticism was initially widespread, with the president of the American Bar Association describing the document as a "pink paper" whose adoption "would promote state socialism, if not communism, throughout the world." Owing to reactions such as these, the prospects were not good for American ratification of an international covenant, which would be necessary to make the Declaration, by itself purely hortatory, binding and a genuine part of international law. It seemed clear that at most the Senate would approve only of a covenant on political and civil rights. With this point in mind, Roosevelt participated in a successful movement to draw up two separate covenants--one involving political and civil rights, the other economic, social, and cultural rights. Glendon thinks that the separation was a practical necessity, but she laments the division, and believes, with Cassin and others, that the rights recognized by the Declaration are genuinely interdependent.

In any event, the Declaration proved a lot more appealing than the covenants. It was not until 1976 that the covenants received the number of ratifications that would enable them to go into effect at all. As far as the United States is concerned, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was not ratified until 1992 (and even then with reservations that remove almost all of its domestic force). And we still have not ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Though they are technically binding, the covenants themselves are notoriously hard to enforce. In an unanticipated and relatively recent development, parts of the Declaration are now counted in some circles as "customary international law," which means that they may even be directly enforceable; but there has been only little success in enforcing any of the Declaration as such.

Still, Glendon thinks that the Declaration has had a significant impact--and in some ways a growing impact--on the world. Martin Luther King Jr. prominently endorsed the Declaration in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The Helsinki Accords of 1975 included a pledge, signed by the Soviet Union itself, to "to act in conformity" with the Declaration; and the Helsinki Accords helped to inspire dissidents under communism. Noting that external monitoring groups have often invoked the Declaration to challenge rights violations, Glendon thinks that Eleanor Roosevelt was largely right to have confidence in the educational function of the Declaration: "The most impressive advances in human rights--the fall of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of the Eastern European totalitarian regimes--owe more to the moral beacon of the Declaration than to the many covenants and treaties that are now in force." In addition, the Declaration has served as a source text for an astonishingly wide range of legally enforceable documents, including more than ninety constitutions. Indeed, almost all of the constitutions written in the aftermath of communism were influenced by the Declaration, sometimes copying provisions verbatim.

Glendon is aware that there have been sharp objections to the Declaration from those who see it as unacceptably Western, even as an act of cultural imperialism. Critics have complained of the Declaration's claims to universalism--urging, in the words of a recent critic, that "Muslims, Hindus, non-Judeo-Christians, feminists, critical theorists, and other scholars of an inquiring bent might have exposed the Declaration's bias and exclusivity." Glendon offers four responses to these criticisms. First, a significant range of nations did participate in the framing of the Declaration, with major influences coming from China, India, and Lebanon. Second, the Declaration emphatically allows for local variations; it offers general ideas whose concrete realization, it was and is agreed, could be variable. Third, the origin of the idea of human rights has nothing to do with its merit: "Shouldn't the question be whether the idea is a good one rather than who had the idea first? Whether the idea is conducive to human flourishing rather than where it was born?" Fourth, and finally, Glendon insists that "where basic human values are concerned, cultural diversity has been exaggerated." Here she invokes the UNESCO philosophers, who "found, after consulting with Confucian, Hindu, Muslim, and European thinkers," that a set of fundamental rights commitments "was widely shared in countries that had not yet adopted rights instruments and that had not yet embraced the language of rights." Glendon concludes with a plea for an increased international role for the Declaration, urging that "its transformative potential has barely begun to be realized."

The framing and the adoption of the Declaration make a terrific story, and Glendon tells it well. In the process she provides two broader lessons. The first is that diverse people can often agree on particular practices even when they disagree on more general questions. Indeed, both social life and law itself are often made possible by agreements of just this kind. Sometimes we do best to bracket our theoretical disagreements and to see whether we might agree not on what to think but on what to do. The Endangered Species Act, for example, enjoys broad support within the United States, but the support rests on diverse grounds, with some emphasizing religious values, others thinking that rare species can provide material benefits to human beings, and still others urging that species as such have rights.

Even judges--one of whose jobs is to give reasons--tend to avoid the most contentious theoretical debates, not least in resolving disputes about rights. When abstract disagreements seem impossible to bridge, judges--in America, Germany, India, Israel, and South Africa--often descend to a lower level of abstraction. They rule, for example, that political dissent cannot be suppressed without showing a clear and present danger, without resolving the question of whether the free speech principle is rooted in a commitment to the marketplace of ideas, or a principle of individual autonomy, or a commitment to democratic self-government, or something else.

Glendon's second lesson involves the claim that rights are unacceptably Western. She is right to emphasize that rights of one sort or another have analogues in many traditions, religions, and nations. It does not much matter whether the term "rights" itself is used; shared norms, protecting certain interests, can do the work of rights. And even if certain ideas have their origins in the Western tradition, it remains necessary to say what exactly is wrong with endorsing values that have sources in that tradition. Glendon quotes a Chinese dissident named Xiao Quiang: "If you were to voice dissent from the prevailing view in China, you would end up in jail, and there you would soon be asking for your rights, without worrying about whether they were `American' or `Chinese.'"

But Glendon says too little about the palpable fact that many millions of people, all over the globe, lack much enthusiasm for the Declaration or for the rights that it contains. In fact, many religious leaders, and many public officials, are quite skeptical of some of the relevant rights. Like the UNESCO philosophers, Glendon writes as if multiple traditions, religious and otherwise, really do converge on a certain understanding of rights--as if diverse people, from their different starting points, are able to agree on a certain catalogue. This is not entirely wrong; but it is far too simple. The Christian, Jewish, and Islamic religions--to name just three--are full of discriminatory, exclusionary, and even violent strands. Do all of these clearly forbid mistreatment of people because of their religious beliefs? Give men and women "equal rights as to marriage, during marriage, and at its dissolution"? Recognize a right not to be arbitrarily deprived of property? Allow people to leave their religion or their nation? Permit people to enter into marriage "only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses"? The answer is not no, but it is not exactly yes.

Those who agreed to the Declaration were not simply following their traditions; they were also interpreting and evaluating them, emphasizing certain features while repudiating and suppressing others. They were also involved in a complicated process of bargaining. It is reasonable to suppose that the Declaration, in its final form, was a compromise, not representing the first choice of any of those who accepted it. Probably few nations were enthusiastic about the whole list.

What Glendon really describes is a process in which diverse people, from their own starting points, were able to agree that this system of rights was a good enough one. This is important, to be sure. But what Glendon does not sufficiently emphasize is the deep ambivalence--and, in a way, the hypocrisy--of this very consensus, as evidenced by the continuing difficulty in achieving agreement on an enforcement mechanism. It is relatively easy both for individuals and for states to agree to principles in the abstract. But it is a lot harder to take steps to make the agreement meaningful in the world. Many of the states that accepted the Declaration violate it every day. Note, in this regard, the fact that the constitution of the former Soviet Union was extremely impressive and not so very different from the Declaration, containing strong guarantees of both first-generation and second-generation rights. The Soviet constitution, like many others (including contemporary China's), was not worth the paper on which it was written. The Declaration has had a greater effect; but is it altogether different?

This question raises a related puzzle, involving the kind of document that the Declaration is meant to be, or the sort of process that it is meant to initiate. Is the Declaration a set of social aspirations, a kind of moral beacon, or is it meant to create genuine obligations? Well over eighty percent of the world's nations have now ratified both covenants, but how many of the ratifiers comply with them in practice? Consider an analogy. In the aftermath of communism, many Eastern European nations embarked on the task of constitution-making, and the Declaration had an extraordinary influence on the documents that emerged. In the process, discussions between Americans and Eastern Europeans reflected a sharp cultural divide. Americans tended to think of constitutions as pragmatic instruments, with direct real-world consequences. They asked, "What will this provision do, in fact?" Eastern Europeans tended to think of constitutions as literally declarative--as expressive of a nation's deepest hopes and highest goals. They asked, "What values does this provision affirm, in principle?"

If we take the pragmatic approach, we will be likely to ask, as Glendon does not, whether all of the Declaration would be sensible parts of an enforceable constitution containing the important institution of judicial review. Should a constitution create a "right to just and favorable remuneration"? To "a standard of living adequate for the health and leisure of" one's family, "including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services"? To "rest and leisure"? What would these provisions mean, concretely, in a poor nation with high levels of unemployment and inadequate medical care and housing? What would they mean, concretely, in a wealthy nation such as the United States or France? If a nation failed to protect the relevant rights, would courts be authorized to intervene--as they often are when rights are violated?

Glendon wants to "reunite the sundered halves of the Declaration--its commitment to individual liberty and its acknowledgment of a link between freedom and economic opportunity." She is right to do so. But she does not explore the complex relationship between the project of "declaring" the rights that people possess and the very different enterprise of creating institutions. Of the many constitutions emerging from the last decades' extraordinary period of constitution writing, the South African one is probably the most impressive; and it qualifies as such in large part because it separates, far more clearly than the Declaration, rights that can be enforced and rights that really are aspirations.

Glendon thinks that Eleanor Roosevelt was correct to argue for a catalogue of moral commitments and to expect that such a catalogue would have real effects, above all because of its pedagogical role. But the skeptic might urge that Roosevelt would have done better to argue for a set of commitments that was simultaneously less ambitious and more easily subject to monitoring and implementation. We lack the kind of careful empirical test that would justify the confident judgment that the skeptic is wrong.

And yet this objection should not be overstated. Glendon is able to show that the Declaration has influenced many recent developments, including the drafting of binding documents, domestic and international. And her most general claim, rooted in Maritain, can be extended. If an international consensus on basic rights will eventually prove possible, not only in a declaration but also in practice, it will probably be developed by bracketing the deepest disagreements and by seeking agreement on what should be done in fact, not on why it should be done in principle. We can go even further. Declaring people's rights is itself a tribute to principle, and actually protecting them is a greater tribute still.

Cass R. Sunstein is a contributing editor at The New Republic.