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December 2014 – Human Rights Day

Situational Ethics and Universal Rights Do Not Mix
by Dylan Self, Military Student Advisor at University of the Rockies

When King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 529 BC, he issued what many have declared was the first type of a universal declaration of human rights. With it he posited his decree that after freeing the Babylonians, they should be able to worship the gods they want to and all slaves should be freed. Were such a dream to have been proven true, the world we live in would be a much better place. 

This is not to say his declaration should be called insignificant. But there are two problems with looking upon Cyrus’ declaration as pivotal. First, emperors often made such announcements to wipe the official books clean and encourage loyalty from their new subjects. Second, what Cyrus declared went largely unheeded by other rulers over the next two thousand years. The history of mankind contained countless wars before Cyrus and has contained countless wars since his death and the rights of millions of civilians were trampled in the process. 

In the 20th century, we witnessed the same struggle playing out again. According to Christopher Hitchens, the three great subjects of the 20th century were what the world should do about imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. It looked upon the imperialist ideology whereby a great power should have the right to reorganize people according to its economic needs. A great war was fought and that system failed. Next, the world looked upon the fascist ideology that supremacy belonged to those who were most racially pure. An even greater war was fought and that system failed as well. Finally, the world looked on as billions were trapped behind an Iron Curtain and though suicidal war seemed almost inevitable, it was avoided and the socialist system eventually crumbled under its own weight. 

While Stalinism still threatened the world, representatives from the free world came together in 1948 and issued a declaration that the old world order, one of imperialism and fascism, was to be rejected and a new order was to replace them. This order, as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, featured the proposition that the foundations of freedom, justice and peace were to be found in the dignity and inalienable rights of the individuals of each nation. So what was produced and adopted by the UN was a document that bore not only the aspirations for a new world, but one whose signatories led democratic nations which had once been empires like Cyrus’s. Those signatories created the modern world wherein peace and trade were to be the norm rather than conquest and retribution.

But is that the world we see today? Democratic nations still go to war with each other as seen in the Crimean Peninsula. They just do it in a different way by denying the invasion is happening. Leaders still brutalize their people as we’ve seen in Syria and North Korea, but notions of sovereignty and powerful benefactors like Russian and China provide a deterrent to international intervention. Aspiring conquerors like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi still rise up from nowhere and garner thousands to their cause so they can join in ISIS’ violent slaughter of civilians and apostates who refuse to convert to their brand of Islam. We see again as new conflicts emerge in the both western and eastern Asia that world peace is at best fleeting and both religious faction and forced servitude are very alive. 

As the most powerful member of the international community, the United States needs to determine, for its own sake and for the sake of its partners around the world, whether we uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or allow it to be ignored. The modern world is supposed to be different than it was in the centuries before. But if democracies don’t understand that they are the ones who are holding the current order together for the benefit of billions of citizens around the world, the modern experiment in peace being better than war will fail. 

Hitchens, Christopher. (2002). Why Orwell Matters.  New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kinstler, Linda. (29 August, 2014). “Putin Will Never, Ever Admit That Russia Has Invaded Ukraine.” Retrieved on 17 November, 2014 from

Morsink, Johannes.  (1999). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting & Intent.  Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (N.D.) Retrieved on 13 November, 2014 from

Translation of the Text on the Cyrus Cylinder. (N.D.) Retrieved on 13 November, 2014 from

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