The current vogue for “human rights” can be traced back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. Before this famous declaration was issued, explains Benoist, the directors of the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) undertook a preliminary enquiry:
An international committee was constituted in order to collect the opinions of a certain number of ‘moral authorities.’ Around 150 intellectuals from all countries were asked to determine the philosophical basis of the new Declaration. This approach ended in failure, and its promoters had to limit themselves to registering the irreconcilable divergences between the responses obtained. Since no accord emerged, the Commission decided not to publish the results of this enquiry.
The UN happily proceeded to issue its Universal Declaration of Human Rights anyway.
UNESCO’s failure at finding any agreed-upon source or rational basis for human rights is hardly surprising. The first great vogue for the rights of man had come with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution a century and a half before, and it had hardly gone unanswered: Nineteenth Century thinkers as different as Burke, Bentham, Marx, and Nietzsche had all subjected both it and the social contract theory on which it was based to withering criticism.
From the point of view of serious philosophical thought, this is more or less where we remain today. Yet the notion of human rights seems to provide modern society with something significant that it would otherwise lack. And so, like a religious teaching, it marches happily on in defiance of any number of refutations. It is continually upon the lips of journalists, politicians, bishops, and even such sublime moral authorities of the present age as Elie Wiesel, Nadine Gordimer, and Kofi Annan; yet no one even bothers trying to justify it anymore. Sometimes this is even admitted explicitly: William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, is quoted by Benoist as saying that human rights are “nothing but what men declare to be rights”.
(Counter-Currents, April 11, 2012).