The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an important component of the Long Peace. Since the end of WWII, most armed conflicts have been relatively minor. There haven’t been any major wars between great national powers. The war in Ukraine is the largest armed conflict in Europe since the end of WWII and the most powerful countries in the world have not fought against each other since the end of WWII. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker demonstrates how enlightenment ideas represented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have changed the way that people think about war, ultimately contributing to the greater peace and stability we see today.
Pinker includes a short recap of the first three articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and these following opening sentences are worth noting:
“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…
Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration…
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.”
These principals, Pinker argues, are more than just words on paper. They reflect humanist ideas and move rules and concepts of the nation or people to the back seat behind the individual. Pinker writes,
“In endorsing the Enlightenment ideal that the ultimate value in the political realm is the individual human being, the signatories were repudiating a doctrine that had reigned for more than a century, namely that the ultimate value was the nation, people, culture, Volk, class, or other collectivity.”
The value of life shifted from being part of a collectivity to being an individual. While this has its own consequences that we are still working through today, it shifted the political calculus of war. It is much harder to convince people to go fight in a war for their country when the individual and the life and experience of the individual, is the supreme value for everyone in a society. When people are little more than the subjects of an ultimate ruler, it is easier to send them to war. When people are the embodiment of a collective, they are expected to go to war. When people are unique and free individuals, directing them to a war in which they may die is harder.
In Ukraine, we are seeing a lot of people chose to fight to defend their country. In Russia, we are seeing massive disinformation campaigns intended to delude the population. Russia has had to rely on misinformation to convince people to go to war, and reports are that many of them never knew they would be in battle (I don’t know how accurate that statement is). It does not seem as though thousands of soldiers can easily be marshalled for the conflict in Ukraine, demonstrating how much the Enlightenment ideals of the individual have changed the approach and calculus of war since the end of WWII, even in a country like Russia which has a host of problems in terms of being a real democracy.
This all makes the world a safer place in terms of violent conflict. Life is not a perfect utopia where no crime, violence, or murder ever takes place, but we haven’t fought major wars with death tolls in the millions in over 60 years. The Enlightenment values of the individual, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, helps us understand why.