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2015 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By Dr. Philip A. Salem

December 10, 2015 [1]

We are here tonight to celebrate the 67th Commemoration Day for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which constitutes one of the major achievements of the United Nations. This trailblazing document was born at the end of World War II and is widely considered the first attempt by an international organization to “recognize the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”, and to commit itself to the sacredness and the dignity of the human person.

We are also here to celebrate the contributions of a man from our land to the making of the Declaration. A man who elevated Lebanon to the heights of glory.

December 10, 1948 was perhaps one of the most historical days of the 20th Century. On that day the definitive version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the general assembly of the United Nations that met at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The same city that has recently been the theater for violence and disrespect for human life. Fifty-eight member states were present, 50 voted yes and 8 abstained. None voted no. After copies of the documents were distributed to the members, a man large in physique with Middle-Eastern complexion stood up and spoke. He spoke about the evolution of the document, and how the final version was reached. It was not easy. His voice was thunderous and he sounded like a prophet. This man was from Lebanon. His name was Charles Habib Malik. Malik was then the Ambassador of Lebanon to the United Nations and the rapporteur of the committee that drafted the Declaration. The committee consisted of five members: John Peters Humphrey (Canada), Rene Cassin (France), P.C. Chang (China), Charles Malik (Lebanon), and Eleanor Roosevelt (chairwoman). Malik was the most powerful member of that committee. His power stemmed from his great intellect, knowledge of philosophy and thought, and his unshakable belief in the dignity of man. It also stemmed from the huge support he enjoyed from Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Roosevelt who trusted him blindly and who supported him immensely. It took two years to reach the final version and if you review the details of the minutes of the meetings, the speeches delivered, and dialogues made, you would recognize that Malik was the force that delivered the Declaration, and if it were not for him, the Declaration would not have seen the light.

Some people may disagree with Malik’s political vision, but I know of no one who does not respect him and honor him for his indefatigable fight for the dignity of man and the right of the individual. At the United Nations and outside its walls, Malik was the uncompromising spokesman on behalf of the rights of the individual human person. He emphasized that the state was to serve the individual and not the other way around as the Soviet delegates had insisted. He repeatedly spoke of the dignity of man and he argued against communism, not only because communism did not value the individual human person, but also it did not believe in God. God and faith were central to the world of Malik and central to the moral philosophy he championed. More than any diplomat ever before, Malik spoke about the importance of infusing politics with moral content. Because of his emphasis on the value of morality in politics, Harvard University had established a special Chair in his name. It is a Professorship in Morality and Politics.

I had the privilege of knowing Charles Malik as a relative, a son of the same village, a diplomat, a philosopher, a friend, and a patient. We have a lot in common. We both share the eternal love to our village, Bterram; as we both had known its people well, its alleys, its squares, its shops, and the beautiful church resting on the top of the hill. We both share the stories of our parents, families and relatives. My mother had told me many stories about their childhood. They were little children. He would summon them every day to lecture upon them. They were little children; their horizons were limited to the boundaries of the village. His horizons had no limits. He was born to teach, lecture, and think. What distinguished him as an intellectual and a diplomat was his integrity, incorruptibility, and immense courage to speak his mind. People like him are missed in the world today.

Charles Malik now rests in eternity on a hill overlooking our little village. It is also overlooking the plain of olive trees of El Koura that rests at the feet of the mountains of the cedars. We both had a childhood that revolved around the olive tree. How fortunate we are to come from a small village in Lebanon.

Tonight I want to salute him and I want him to know that I remain the proud student and follower of his. I want him to know that I still share his vision and also share his immense love to our land, to our country, to our Lebanon.

Also, I am here tonight to recommend a revision to the document that prioritizes the right to healthcare as the most sacred human right because without health there is no life.

Article 3 of the Declaration states, “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person”, but I would like to ask what does the right to life in this article mean? Evidently, it does not relate to healthcare as Article 25 stipulates: “Everyone has the right to standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family including food, clothing, housing and medical care necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”. It is clear to me from the above two articles that those who authored the Charter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights failed to define the basic and organic relationship between the right to life and the right to healthcare. Accordingly, the right to healthcare was not a central issue in the Charter, and that it needs to be today more than ever. I strongly believe that there is no human right more important than the right to healthcare, as health is the foundation for life. Without health, there is no life and without life there are no human rights. Man has to live first before he can exercise human rights. I am here tonight to recommend to the United Nations, and to the Human Rights Committee to change Article 3 of the Declaration, and to make it read as follows: “The most important and sacred human right is the right to life, but this right is not possible without the right to healthcare, as life depends on health. Consequently, all governments and societies are urged to consider healthcare a priority and should strive to provide the highest attainable standard healthcare to all their citizens”. This revision heralds a revolution in our commitment to the dignity of man, and to human rights, as the right to healthcare becomes a priority in the policies and strategies of governments all over the world contrary to the present situation whereby healthcare is treated as a low priority. Also, commitment to healthcare becomes an important index for assessing the commitment of a country to human rights.

What does the right to healthcare mean? It means three things: The right to prevention of disease, the right to early detection of disease, and the right to medical care when needed. To achieve these objectives, new health policies should be established, and civil society should be mobilized. The provision of healthcare is not the responsibility of governments only, but it is also the responsibility of society at large. The tragedy is that most health policies all over the world are in the hands of traditional politicians. It is my conviction that such policies should not be the responsibility of politicians, as health is above politics. Health relates to every person irrespective of his ideological, political, religious, or societal affiliation. Health should be apolitical. Take for example the debate over the last several years in the United States Congress which had revolved around one point, and one point only, and that is how to reduce healthcare costs. Not one single congressman had the courage to speak on prevention of disease as the most effective way of reducing cost. Reducing cost at the expense of the quality of medical care is a very expensive and fatal mistake. In my opinion the most efficient way of reducing cost without taking the risk of reducing quality of care is to establish comprehensive policies for prevention and early detection of disease. What politicians may not know is that prevention of disease does not only reduce cost, but it also reduces what is by far more important, human suffering. Millions of children all over the world die every year of preventable and treatable diseases because they do not have the basic human right to healthcare. Should we fail in preventing disease, we should not fail in detecting it early. Early detection necessitates health policies that would provide the right of every person to undergo an annual checkup, and to do tests and procedures, which could detect disease early, and thus, save his life. In this regard my motto is “If consulting the doctor is necessary when you are sick, consulting him when you are healthy is even more important”. The chances of cure from any disease are higher when the disease is discovered early. These chances decrease as the disease advances. In regard to the right of the person to good medical care when he falls ill, I cannot think of a more sacred right. I do not know of a more threatening enemy to man than disease, and I do not know of a more brutal power that could strip a person of his dignity than disease. It is a shame that people do not realize the significance of health and the sacredness of the right to healthcare until they become sick. Even more challenging are those who need medical care for a prolonged period of time, and those who battle suffering and disease every day. These people painfully know the meaning of humiliation and disgrace. What do human rights mean to those patients who have no access to a doctor or treatment? What does the right to freedom or the right to education mean to a person who is threatened by death? This is why I strongly believe that the right to healthcare should be the first and most sacred right of the Human Rights. I would also like to emphasize that the real index for measuring the status and level of civilization in a country should not be the military power it possesses or the social and financial prosperity that its citizens enjoy. It should be the commitment of that country to the health of its people. How shameful that there are great nations like the United States of America that claim that they do not have adequate financial resources to provide healthcare to their citizens when they have all the resources to launch the most expensive wars in history. Indeed, also how ironic it is that those who are considered heroes in our world today, and also in the past, are those who launched wars that had caused a lot of destruction and death. My hero is the one who saves a human life, not the one who destroys it.

Life is a gift from God. It was given to man. Man did not work to earn it. Only God is capable of creating it. However, life is dependent on health, and health is dependent on healthcare. To glorify God, we should also glorify his gift, and consequently acknowledge the role of health in preserving it.

I am committed to the sacredness of life, and consequently I am committed to the sacredness of health, and thus the need for making the right to healthcare a priority in this document and the global community.


[1] This speech was delivered at the U.N. Headquarters in New York in a ceremony held on this occasion.