26 June 2018

Charles Malik, the UN, and Human Rights

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No caption, the photo is one of several embedded in “Remembering Charles Malik,” by Joe Hoover, on the beginning weeks of what was called then the “Arab Spring”; it also contains a 10-min. filmed interview from 1953 with Charles Malik. No caption, the photo is one of several embedded in “Remembering Charles Malik,” by Joe Hoover, on the beginning weeks of what was called then the “Arab Spring”; it also contains a 10-min. filmed interview from 1953 with Charles Malik. https://thedisorderofthings.com/2011/02/09/remembering-charles-h-malik/

The media was abuzz this last week with the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and its resulting wrenching of children from their parents’ arms. He finally reversed course, but the damage internationally was done. UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein put it this way , “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.” A couple of months ago, his office declared that this practice “amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child.”

The United States, it turns out, is the only country in the world not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which entered into force in 1990. In fact, it just pulled out of the Human Rights Council set up in 2006 over a number of complaints. But human rights discourse aside, you say, what difference should this make? Plainly, ripping children away from their families is a violation of human decency.

In this regard the history of human rights remains instructive (see also my two-part blog post on human rights). After two unimaginably violent and bloody world wars, momentum got under way for the creation of the United Nations and for a document that would clearly set some standards of human decency toward fellow human beings. The document that came to light in that process was the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

That same year the founding document of the United Nations, the UN Charter, had been signed by 50 countries on June 26, 1945 and ratified on October 24. It mandated for all member states “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” But it was short on details.

Meanwhile, the UN Economic and Social Council established the 18-member Human Rights Commission (HRC), which in turn designated a Human Rights Drafting Committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. The lead drafter was Canadian John Peters Humphrey, Director at the time of the Division of Human Rights within the United Nations Secretariat, but the lion’s share of ideas goes to three other influential members: the French jurist René Cassin, the Lebanese Charles Malik, and the Taiwanese scholar of Confucianism, P. C. Chang.

The committee met twice in as many years and the UDHR was adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, with 48 nations in favor, eight abstaining (including Saudi Arabia), and two failing to vote (Honduras and Yemen). Not one nation voted against it. Note that among the signatories you find eight Muslim-majority nations: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey.

Now I want to focus on the enormous contribution made in this process by Charles Malik. I will thereby highlight his role as a politician and especially as a theologian.


Charles Malik: global statesman

Charles Habib Malik (1906-1987) hailed from a small north Lebanese village (Bitirram) in which his father served as medical doctor, and like many in his Greek Orthodox family and entourage, he went to a Protestant secondary boarding school, the Tripoli Boys School, one of over 40 such schools at the time run by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions (BPFM). He then studied mathematics and physics at the American University of Beirut (also founded by the BPFM). But philosophy is what captured his attention the most, and he pursued a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard University under Alfred North Whitehead, including a year of study under Martin Heidegger in Germany (which he quickly left behind when the Third Reich was ominously beginning to take shape). He obtained his PhD in 1937.

Malik was an academic at heart, and only reluctantly did he dive into diplomacy and politics, first as Lebanon’s ambassador to the USA (1945-55), Lebanon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs (1956-58) and its Minister of National Education and Fine Arts (1956-57), and finally MP for the Koura region.

Malik’s greatest accomplishments, however, should be seen in his contribution to the United Nations. He was Lebanon’s delegate for the founding conference of the UN (San Francisco, 1945) and immediately wanted to contribute to the reinforcement of human rights. He managed to secure Lebanon’s place in the body most responsible for working on human rights, the UN Economic and Social Council, and this by thwarting Turkey’s bid to do so. This also meant that he became one of the 18 members of the newly formed Human Rights Commission (HRC). He chaired the third session of the UN General Assembly which presided over the passage of the UDHR, and it was largely because of his diplomatic skills that it passed unanimously with only eight abstentions.

Charles Malik’s son, Habib Malik, also a Harvard PhD, directs the Charles Malik Foundation, which in 2000 in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Lebanese Studies published some of his father’s writings on human rights (The Challenge of Human Rights: Charles Malik and the Universal Declaration). Harvard Law professor and specialist in human rights law, Mary Ann Glendon (see her A World Make New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York: Random House, 2001) wrote the Introduction to that work, noting Malik’s extraordinary contribution:


“At one time or another, Malik held nearly all the major posts in the UN, including a rotating seat on the Security Council and the presidency of the General Assembly. During the period covered by most of the writings in this book, he served as rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission, which he later chaired” (1).


Before I focus on his particular contribution to the UDHR, allow me to comment on his subsequent academic career. Besides his record-breaking 51 honorary doctorates from all over the world, Malik taught in the USA at Harvard, the American University in Washington, DC, Dartmouth College, Notre Dame University in Indiana, and the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He also taught in his home country as professor of philosophy at the University of Beirut (1962-76).


Charles Malik and Human Rights

First, his contributions as a philosopher: I’m following Mary Ann Weaver’s outline here. Already, Western nations were clashing with their communist counterparts on the issue of collectivism and the freedom of the individual. Malik urged all the delegates to look past their respective ideologies and focus on the human person. What is his nature? (this was before gender-inclusive language) Is he not than just an economic being, or one defined by his group, whether ethnic, religious, or political?

Malik steered the group away from Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Anglo-American-style individualism,” and by making an alliance with the two delegates from China and Latin America, “Malik saw man as uniquely valuable in himself, but as constituted in part by and through his relationships with others – his family, his community, his nation, and his God” (3). Thus he challenged both competing concepts, the oppressive state under the communists on the one hand; and the capitalist construction of society as atomistic individuals seeking their own economic self-interest.

Then too, Malik often insisted on the crucial distinction between society and state, and thus the importance of civil society: “Malik insisted on the political importance of the many associations and institutions of civil society that stand between the individual and the state – families, religious groups, professional associations, and so on. It is due in no small part to Malik’s vigilance that the declaration explicitly protects these mediating structures” (3).

Finally, the Preamble’s wording that human beings are “endowed with reason and conscience” is largely due to Malik’s insistence. This is no doubt an important philosophical concept, but it is also his way of making sure there was room for theological justification from a variety of religious traditions.

Second, his contributions as a diplomat. Glendon details the tremendous odds against securing the UN vote that would ensure the adoption of the UDHR. The June 1948 Berlin blockade all but guaranteed the collapse of the USSR-Western alliance. Procedure dictated that the Economic and Social Council had to approve the UDHR first. Unfortunately, it “was filled with hard-boiled, hard-nosed practitioners of realpolitik, and the declaration was expected to face strong opposition there” (4). Fortunately, it had elected a new president months earlier – Charles Malik himself! The document sailed through with flying colors, “to the astonishment of many,” Glendon adds.

The next seemingly insurmountable hurdle was obtaining the approval of the General Assembly’s Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Affairs (aka, the Third Committee, composed of 58 members, one from each UN member state). Fortunately again, in the fall of 1948 when the final round of review convened, Charles Malik was elected chair by secret ballot. Yet here is a man who again and again in his diaries confesses his distaste for public life, and politics especially!

Writing about him, John Humphrey claimed in his memoirs that he was “one of the most independent people ever to sit on the Commission.” Independent or not, it took an inordinate amount of grit to get the job done – over 80 meetings all in all, with bitter arguments over every line. As the meetings spilled over into November, the level of anxiety was rising. The General Assembly would adjourn in December!

Malik had to balance pressure from the Soviet block that was deliberately extending discussions so as to kill the project, and from Mrs. Roosevelt and others who wanted to bring it to a vote as soon as possible. Coming from a small country himself, Malik calculated that the adoption could only come if every country could be brought on board. As Glendon puts it, “He was far-sighted enough to realize that a sense of ‘ownership’ on the part of many cultures would not only improve the declaration’s chances of adoption but, more importantly, would promote its lasting reception among the nations” (6).

Malik was relieved when, at the end of November, the Third Committee approved the declaration with no opposing votes and only seven abstentions. Historians give Malik most of the credit for achieving this victory.

Now the last great hurdle was passing the UDHR through the General Assembly. Any “no” vote would greatly compromise its future legitimacy. As mentioned earlier, in his December 9 speech he gave credit to the contributions of every major culture and nation, explaining that the UDHR had been “constructed on a firm international basis wherein no regional philosophy or way of life was permitted to prevail” (6). He then reviewed the document’s history and then declared that the UDHR would “serve as a potent critic of existing practice” and “help to transform reality.” At the same time he stressed that this was only the first step in harnessing the power of human rights to protect people.

To this Glendon adds, “How right he was! Though the Great Powers regarded the non-binding declaration as of little importance, its ‘merely’ moral force later eclipsed in importance the covenants that were adopted to implement its provisions” (7).


Charles Malik the ecumenist and theologian

If I succeeded in whetting your appetite for learning more about Charles Malik, your first step would be to consult this fascinating 2010 essay in the journal Biography (available if you can get access to a jstor.org account): (“Charles H. Malik and human rights: notes on a biography”). The author, Glenn Mitoma, is professor at the Human Rights Institute of the University of Connecticut, and this article was a prelude to his 2013 book, Human Rights and the Negotiation of American Power.

Mitoma argues in his essay that studying Malik’s work from the perspective of biography is particularly illuminating. Specifically, he stresses Malik’s Christian faith and how it underpinned both his objectives and philosophy on the Human Rights Commission and within the longer arc of his efforts as a Christian statesman.

This was possible because of Malik’s life-long loyalty to his Greek Orthodox upbringing while incorporating in a critical and discerning manner his American Protestant education. Quoting from Malik, Mitoma provides some useful information regarding his three years at the Tripoli Boys School (notice the many quotes by Malik):


“Malik ‘witnessed one of the profoundest and most lasting religious experiences’ of his life. The ‘short simple prayer’ at mealtimes, and the ‘disciplined, quiet, dignified’ march of students, two-by-two, to Sunday service at the Tripoli Protestant Church, helped him become aware, he said, of the ‘ultimate Christian religious realities.’ Malik expressed a deep admiration for and gratitude to the ‘God fearing men and women’ who staffed the school, and no doubt of greatest satisfaction to his audience of earnest and faithful humanitarians, spoke of the ‘true vision of Christ’ that had for the first time filled his heart.”


I already mentioned his son Habib Malik and the foundation bearing his father’s name. In his Foreword to an edited book in honor of his father’s centenary, Habib emphasizes two aspects of his father’s religious commitment: his intentional promotion of Christian unity beyond the three main traditions of the church (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) – the very definition of ecumenism; and his own devotion, and in particular, his “very special, life-long, intimate relationship with the Bible, which he read daily according to a rigorous schedule” (14). This emphasis makes sense in light of this book’s nature. It is built around the address that Malik gave at the 1980 inauguration of the Billy Graham Center on the Wheaton College campus in Wheaton, IL. This means that Billy Graham himself would have chosen Malik for this great honor. The address was simply entitled, “The Two Tasks,” and the book, The Two Tasks of the Christian Scholar: Redeeming the Soul, Redeeming the Mind.

I have no room here to comment on the book’s content, but let me simply make two remarks.


1. A vocation to Christian unity: Malik remained Greek Orthodox, but two of his brothers became Catholic priests (Jesuit and Dominican) and his mother’s family was mostly Protestant from the congregational tradition. In the World Council of Churches (WCC) context, he served as president of the World Council on Christian Education (1967-71). In an even more ecumenical institution, he served as vice president of the United Bible Societies (1966-71). As mentioned earlier, he taught in two Catholic universities over the years. As I peruse his list of twenty books or so, I see three theological books aside from many articles and speeches: Christ and Crisis (1962); God and Man in Contemporary Christian Thought (1970); he also edited a parallel book in 1967 relative to the Islamic tradition, both published by the American University of Beirut); finally, The Wonder of Being (1974).


2. His theological commitment to saving humanity’s soul and mind: clearly, if Billy Graham chose him for the inaugural address of his one and only venture into academia, he trusted Malik’s basic Christian commitment to evangelism – the mandate Jesus gave to his disciples to announce the Good News everywhere and make disciples of all nations (Mat. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). But he also approved of his emphasis on “saving” the mind. And here Malik does not disappoint.

To sum up Malik’s speech, the great confusion the world is experiencing can be traced to a large extent to the cacophony of ideologies, which, despite their many differences, are all forms of self worship in the end – like “materialism and hedonism; naturalism and rationalism; relativism and Freudianism; a great deal of cynicism and nihilism; indifferentism and atheism … (the list goes on).” His message is simple, and it is appropriately addressed to evangelicals (jokingly, Wheaton is often called “the evangelical Mecca”). He doesn’t mince his words: “the great danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism” (63).

He also says, “Christ being the light of the world, his light must be brought to bear on the problem of the formation of the mind. The investigation will have to be accomplished with the utmost discretion and humility, and it can only be carried out by men of prayer and faith … We are dealing here with a thoroughgoing critique, from the point of view of Jesus Christ, of Western Civilization as to its highest contemporary values” (63-64). Then further on we read, “If it is the will of the Holy Ghost [Spirit] that we attend to the soul, certainly it is not his will that we neglect the mind. No civilization can endure with its mind being as confused and disordered as ours is today” (64).

Though he had no time to mention this in his address, Malik might well have brought up the issue of human rights. And that is where I particularly resonate with his work and life. Christians must reflect deeply on the implications of God’s creation of humankind on the one hand. What does human dignity mean from that angle? This concern we share with people of all faiths and no faith. And on the other, what does the cross of Jesus mean for the redemption of individuals and nations, for the power of forgiveness and healing in a broken and fractured world?