Ref. HRA 1999/2
©1999 Human Rights Awareness



The UDHR can serve as a "magna carta" to set the basis for an Human (and individual) Rights-centered society.


The year 1999 has been the date of an import anniversary: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emanated on Dec. 19, 1948, has become more than 50 years old. Approved by the UN general assembly just a few years after Europe’s worst human right disaster of the century – W. W. II – the UDHR has become since then a reference and source of inspiration for human rights activists worldwide (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and ourselves), and part of its text has been literally “cut and pasted” into the constitutions of countries born since that time. Yet, the UDHR general validity is being challenged from several sources, some of them within Western Europe. Some see the UDHR a reformulation of Western “cultural imperialism.” Others see in the UDHR a re-edition of moral absolutism. A dilemma human rights activists often face – in front of complaints of “interference with internal affairs” of a nation – is how far one can go in applying the UDHR principles. Is it coercing into compliance of a tradition alien to extra-European countries, whose customs are being tramped upon? Can we legitimately defend the rights of women in Afghanistan and at the same time avoid the charge of “cultural imperialism”, since we are criticizing consolidated traditions which are so different from our own? This issue is not unlike the issue about the boundary between education and indoctrination of children. Is education imposing norms and rules which are relative to a particular culture and social system, and that may hamper the free expression and unfettered development of the child? Where is the limit between liberating and empowering learning – and the inculcation of burdensome notions yielding to the uncritical acceptation of a misleading cultural system? Where an educational system – yet to come – that sets “human rights” in its center, may step into a dogmatic, freedom-quenching sets of rules? To  address these questions it is perhaps helpful to consider two extreme situations.

  1. a young woman in a Western country  becoming, by her choice, a nun – going to live in a monastery under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Many would  see this choice as limitative, even self-destructive and nihilistic. Yet, this choice may be highly praised within that girl's social environment.
  2. The second situation is the one of members of a Bondage – Domination – Sado – Masochistic (BDSM) group. A young woman submits to the tortures and “punishments” that are inflicted her by the “dominants” in the group – who openly enjoy and are sexually aroused by the practice. Does this membership or even the existence of BDSM groups pose an ethical challenge? As human rights activists we should be bound to fight any form of slavery (explicitly condemned by the UDHR). Should thus we regard the BDSM group members as the worst form of “monsters”? Even if not, should we see these BDSM practices as a form of mockery with respect to the many people that are still being tortured around the world?

While the first example may be a familiar example especially even among old-fashioned “volterrians,” the second example may  evoke anger and dismay even in “open-minded” readers of this essay. It is an example that involves social groups whose existence is yet barely appreciated  in many Western countries and whose activities, albeit almost private, are still violently ostracized. In other words, there is yet no widespread cognitive culture on the BDSM sexual orientation. The two examples are enlightening because one is objectionable under conventional moral wisdom, but its consideration is likely to change in the near future, and the other has gone from a socially-accepted choice often imposed by economic and social conditions to a free choice which is objectionable because it is limitative. Yet, is it legitimate to condemn them on the basis of the UDHR? 

The conundrum may be solved if it is taken into account that the UDHR is the reaffirmation of individual rights (or of the right of minorities) in front of  powerful organized groups like the state, and any consolidated institution. Every individual  has the right to choose his or her own condition – as well as to back away from any previous choice. Some innocuous choices will appear perforce limitative or outrageous to many. Yet, there should be no ostracism.

In a world that is becoming more and more “homogeneous” because of globalization, human  diversity should re-emerge from the acceptance and the encouragement of diverse individual behaviors. In the first example, the girl may take vows because that choice is consistent with her education, her religious inclinations and her aversion for material life. We may not share these feelings or the same personal history, but the choice must be felt as perfectly acceptable. Similar considerations hold for the BDSM case. Diversity cannot be understood only in terms of religious or political beliefs. Sexual orientation plays a role as well. “Sex governs everything”, to cite Walt Whitman. A consensual BDSM relationship is built for the pleasure, empowerment of all partners involved. Both those with a truly dominant personality and those on the submissive side are felt free to express themselves in this framework. It should be absolutely no scandal. It is demonstrated that those people behave among themselves and with respect to others in a very responsible way. On the contrary, the inability to liberate this side of personality generate frustration and dissatisfaction. It is the principal tenet of psycho-analysis that repression of sexual instinct generates psychosis.  Keeping such inclination hidden and sublimating it in societal behaviors may  be more stressful and even  dangerous. People which are well adjusted within themselves and can freely express themselves may not be prone  to seek scapegoats for their problems. Tortures must be removed from law enforcement and from real life – and the only realm where they can or survive is as a sexual play between consenting adults.

Assigning highest priority to individual choice does not necessarily mean that consolidated institutions would suddenly  disappear, a fear that has brought such  institutions to take a violently repressive stand to preserve themselves. Some of them – like all the main churches – are closely linked to the well being of people and satisfy needs which are anthropologically rooted. In a “relaxed” individual rights centered society, human diversity and mores  will recreate themselves in an endless and dynamic way in different communities according to the orientations and the exigencies  best suited to everyone. Thus the “ingerence” must be in the sense of individual right to choice – not in favor of any political system or religious belief or system of values. This is why the activity of Amnesty International is ethically coherent with the UDHR.  An endless variety of  political systems is possible given that constraint.

There are several conditions yet to be met to make this HR centered society possible. Unfortunately, too many in the EU and in the USA ostracized simply because “what they are, they cannot be.” We live in a world in which minority behavior are often stigmatized. The smaller the minority the sharper the stigma. In general,   “compact majority” members share the same form of behavior, feel that they are ethically right, and attack minorities claiming that the target minorities are attacking or mocking the most cherished, pro-life values of the community. This may be  the case, in present days, of the BDSM minority. This is a danger most Western democracy face. Emma Goldman pointed it out at the beginning of the century, and we have called it “the paradox of the sacred tree”. 

The premises to make an individual rights centered society real are based on:

1.        education emphasizing the spontaneous  acceptation  of human diversity and of individual rights starting from early childhood. Instinctive behavior drives toward aggression of the weaker and of the different. Therefore, efficient education must become empowerment, and leave everyone with  inner deep, bad feelings if any instinctive reaction pushes against harmless but different behavior. 

2.        absence of any structured group imposing with force particular, time- or location-dependent norms. Society must create organized groups to create opportunity – but limit enforcement of rules to the strict necessary, i. e. against behaviors that are  violent and harmful toward others, and ensure that such enforcement is not biased and is carried out in an efficient way.

These  expectations are not met, and are not far from utopia (we consider that the present-day society that come closer (but which is still not close) to the “relaxed society” is the American one). It may be sufficient to think that tens of millions of people lost their life in wars during the last year. However, acceptance of diversity is a present necessity. BDSM is not mockery of torture. Otherwise, claims of mockery should apply to gambling, for example, as a mockery of deep poverty, and henceforth to any wide majority ignoring a disadvantaged minority. This hypocrisy is too often not obvious as it should be. A “relaxed society” is a society in which every person has equal opportunity – and in which everyone is prepared to recognize and accept different individual behavior that is transgressive but harmless. Considering that the current trend toward globalization seems unstoppable, a “relaxed society” is the only conceivable alternative to a dull, uniform world, where globalization would ultimately mean “conformation” loss of diversity and of originality, and may, in the forthcoming century, bring a sole system of though, a sole political system, and ultimately an endless  dictatorship, more powerful and thought controlling than every dictatorship ever known on earth.

Ref. HRA 1999/2
©1999 Human Rights Awareness