The good intentions of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights took place in stages. Drafted in large measure as a response to the horrors of World War II and in the face of the continuing horrors of communism, the 1948 Declaration sought to “transcend” political, religious, and ethnic differences in the name of an abstract notion of human dignity. Sadly, it failed to ground that dignity in a coherent vision of who we are as persons and the limited role of governments in providing for it. The first wave of international “reform” it spawned aimed primarily at the establishment of international structures and norms among economically advanced nations. Very soon, however, the Declaration was used as one justification for independence movements among the colonies of these nations.

Once independence came to some former colonies, it came rather swiftly to others. But independence could not provide solutions for the political, economic, and social problems faced by peoples in significant parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Despite self-serving narratives of “civilizing” native peoples, of course, colonialism brought great harm to many peoples as colonizing countries tore down pre-existing traditions and associations, leaving gaping holes in civil societies within nations often cobbled together from hostile groups and just as often splitting up longstanding ethnic and other relationships.

Beginning in the 1960s, as the West faced its own forms of internal unrest, a kind of revolution of rising expectations radicalized much of the (neither Western nor Soviet) “undeveloped” or Third World. This revolution spoke the language of the Universal Declaration and was motivated in part by its abstract statements of economic “rights” to work, leisure, and development. Unfortunately, the long, hard road to economic development was considered too long and too hard. Academics touted various ways of “jump starting” development, the dictators who quickly succeeded post-colonial governments demanded reparations for past injustices, and liberal elites in the West began in earnest to construct the framework for a new world order heavily influenced by an egalitarian ideology devoted to using the state as the engine of development and social justice.

It was during this era that the United Nations adopted its “Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States.” The document is very much a creature of its time. Adopted in 1974, soon after the American pullout from Vietnam, it reflects an era in which the United States was in headlong retreat in its Cold War with Soviet Communism. The cosmopolitans of the age, including international lawyers, academics, and those associated with various UN organizations, for decades had declared that socialism was the efficient, humane “wave of the future.” They urged policymakers in Washington and around the world to make peace with the new order and learn to do business in a manner that would, in their view, bring prosperity and justice to the world.

Building on its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations during this era also formulated a Declaration and Programme of Action on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order. To institutionalize that order, the UN promulgated a new Charter of Economic Rights and Duties with the stated goal of establishing “generally accepted norms to govern international economic relations systematically” so as to “establish a just order and a stable world.” The new world order would be “based on equality, sovereign equality, interdependence, common interest and co-operation among all States, irrespective of their economic and social systems.”

It was this last element, “irrespective of their economic and social systems” that dominated the language and intent of the document, and which has come to dominate much of international organizations’ operating procedures. A central goal of the document was to overcome the prejudice among economically developed nations against socialist regimes. Thus, the Charter declared the right of each nation to “nationalize, expropriate or transfer ownership of foreign property.” The Charter also provided that owners of these assets should be compensated, in the same document in which it declared that states associated with colonialism and related injustices had a duty to provide “restitution and full compensation for the exploitation and depletion of, and damages to, the natural and all other resources” of the affected nations. Not surprisingly, the call for reparations was used as a justification for not providing compensation.

It was, in fact, to combat bad feelings and mistrust on the part of developed nations that the Charter seems primarily to have been drafted. At a time when the focus was on the depredations of colonialism and the demand that “rights” to economic development be answered by governmental action, the document spills much ink calling for an end to “discrimination” against nations ruled by governments choosing socialism. There is, here, a clear expression of support for “democracy” in the economic sphere as Article 7 calls for each state “to implement progressive economic and social reforms and to ensure the full participation of its people in the process and benefits of development.” Economically developed states are called on to provide “differential measures”—a kind of economic affirmative action favoring developing countries in various trade policies. And states are called on to help the UN’s own organizations, along with other international groups, “to stimulate the general economic progress” of developing countries in particular.

The World Bank today often is blamed for imposing austerity measures on various bankrupt regimes in an attempt to re-establish long lost credit and fiscal responsibility. Whether these programs are well or ill considered, the organization gained its outsized power in developing countries because of its earlier role as facilitator of socialist planning in these very nations. It was, along with various development agencies and non-governmental organizations, a prime enabler of policies shoring up corrupt regimes pursuing socialist policies, claiming to provide participation and independence, but in fact providing only corruption and poverty. Through a combination of concerns with “equal sovereignty” and a kind of “affirmative action” trade program, the Charter of Economic Rights helped justify and promote a series of policies designed to favor corrupt, centralized regimes that would steal from and eventually bankrupt their peoples in the name of equal rights to wealth and economic development.

Accelerated development, sharing of resources, protection of the environment—all the common goals of those self-appointed to bring about “structural changes in the world economy”—are present in this document, along with reiterations of the “common desire to achieve a just and rational development of all parts of the world.” But how was utopia to be achieved? Through a kind of “soft law.” That is, the UN’s Declaration of rights and duties could not impose substantive, enforceable duties on anyone or any nation. Indeed, much of the document is devoted to declaring the sovereignty of all nations in regard to their economic policies in particular. But the purpose of these protestations of sovereignty was, in fact, to motivate developed nations and UN organizations to ignore common sense regarding economic policies and even the horrendous track records of various regimes in their use of developmental aid funding.

The result was to entrench within international elites, the World Bank, and even various national economic organizations a willingness to bend over backwards to accommodate policies and institutions that were not merely inefficient but positively hostile to sound economic policies that would have promoted economic development and well-being for the general populace. A case in point is the Charter’s explicit approval of cartel-like organizations such as OPEC purporting to give national control over various resources to local governments. The problem was not one of control by particular nations or groups, but rather the promotion of kleptocratic policies throughout Africa and in numerous other nations under the guise of price stabilization boards. These boards, perhaps most egregiously in Ghana, but really throughout the “developing” world, took over from colonial organizations which sought to establish stable commodity prices, setting aside surpluses from good years to provide stability and payments to farmers during lean years. Again, whatever the wisdom of the previous policies, in nations like Ghana the “surpluses” were simply stolen and prices set at such low levels that farmers, who once had provided a significant measure of prosperity, were forced out of business. Corruption was so rampant in these government controlled monopolies that the result was a simple dissipation of money and effort, with resulting loss of cash crops and even starvation. In the name of fairness, the UN Charter helped entrench a regime of “equality” that doled out aid money to the worst regimes, enabling them to fleece their own peoples.

We are hearing again about the duty of developed nations to “equalize” the wealth of the world. This has already been tried. It failed, but not because a few bad actors stole all the money. It failed because it was rooted in the theory that centralized regimes exerting control over nationalized economies could, if given enough “free” money, force modernization and development. The actual result was regimes with a great deal of money and little or no governing capacity, economic expertise, or understanding of markets, and, of course, a ruling ideology of resentment and power. It should not have been surprising that leaders in these nations spent their money on armies, palaces, and foreign bank accounts, rather than genuine improvements. So much for the wave of the future. We can only hope the next round of “international compassion” fizzles before it does as much damage as the last.

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