Much nowadays is being written and said on human rights. Indeed, so many words that read like poetry on one's lips do not always have a safe place in one's heart. All sound ideas have to be translated meaningfully in daily life.

This certainly is a good time to recall that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations 56 years ago, on December 10, 1948, is very often hailed as "a milestone in human history".

One is pleased to affirm that when Pope John XXIII welcomed the United Nations declaration in his encyclical Pacem in Terris he openly confirmed the legitimacy of doctrine on human rights.

One has to note that the United Nations Charter had already proclaimed its "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small". But in 1948 the assembly wished to go further by drawing up an International Bill of Rights, consisting of a declaration, two covenants and measures of implementation.

The 30 articles of the Declaration, largely inspired by the French lawyer Rene Cassin, vice-president of the commission which drew up the declaration, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968, are a political interpretation of mankind's right to life and freedom.

They advocate equality before the law; protection against arbitrary arrest; the right to a fair trial; the right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

They insist above all on the fact that the State does not have the right of life and death over its citizens. This is why this declaration not only condemns slavery and torture but insists on the right to freedom and dignity.

Of course this authentic declaration is not the first of its kind to concern itself with human rights understood as a consequence of a higher law inscribed in nature.

In reality the idea of the inalienable rights of the human being was known to poets, philosophers and politicians in antiquity. The sound link between the "natural law" and the "natural rights of man" is found in writings of the Stoics, both Greek and Roman, of early Christianity, St Thomas Aquinas and later theologians.

Nowadays there is a consensus of opinion that the Catholic Church under John Paul II has emerged as a foremost champion of these fundamental rights. For Pope John Paul human rights flow from the dignity of the human person made in the image of God, so that they are indeed inalienable and universal.

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