If one reads at once the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), one will find a constant element. Neither of these documents determine what human dignity is. Needless to say that in all of their preambles dignity is the cornerstone of the rights later described by them. To find out what dignity is, three questions will be discussed: Can dignity be understood as the fulfillment of all the rights established in these instruments? Could it be that to achieve dignity only certain rights should be fulfilled? And, is dignity now the same as what was dignity in the time of the elaboration of these documents? To answer these questions, the three human rights instruments will be examined in addition to some other documents adopted or published by the United Nations in regard to this topic.
One sentence in the preamble of both, the ICCPR and the ICESCR, reads as follows: “Recognizing that these rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person”. Parting from this, one could say that dignity precedes any right that a human might have or that in order to attain dignity all human rights most be respected and fulfilled. It all depends on how one wants to understand this sentence. If the first interpretation is correct, dignity is the one that determines and is used to elaborate human rights. However, there is one observation to this affirmation and it is that we do not have an agreement of what dignity specifically is. It the second interpretation is correct, then human rights would be the building blocks for human dignity. The unfortunate side of this interpretation is that if taken as the truth, then this would result in the need of fulfilling more than ninety rights in order to have dignity. Perhaps this could impose a large burden in State Parties because,at the moment, there is not a universal fulfillment of all the rights depicted in these instruments.
It can be agreed that if the second interpretation would be taken as the truth then the State parties to both covenants would be faced with a vast amount of challenges in trying to fulfill all of the rights, in spite of the progressiveness that is stated in the ICESCR. For this reason, dignity should precede human rights in the sense that dignity should be considered the goal as well as the road towards human rights. Even though there is not a clear meaning of the word dignity or any indicators by which we can measure this concept, it is easier for States to elaborate rights based on what each one of them considers dignity to be. Although it is not expected that the different definitions of dignity coincide amongst each other, it could be presumed that the definitions would not be far from each other. All of them should fall into a common place that could hold at least some rights as the basic source of dignity. In this regard, one could say that not all rights are essential to achieve human dignity.
Just as in the beginning of the development of these documents, dignity remains to be defined by international documents. Currently, there are some indicators that are used refer to it but don’t specifically define it as a whole. What they do is objectivize certain situations that should be prioritized for instance, what can be considered as adequate housing? The indicators look for a possibility to quantify or provide a degree of how dignity could be evaluated and achieved through the measure of housing. More often than not, these indicators focus only on the numbers but not on the quality of what they are measuring. In this regard, it is not the same to say that five people have a roof to live than to say that that three people have a house with access to basic services. Details like these are the ones that are in the way of fully having a definition of dignity.
Perhaps it is too difficult to develop a comprehensive definition of what dignity is. Maybe it is better for this term to be left undefined and open to interpretation by all of the State Parties of these human rights instruments. However, this could leave room for arbitrary consideration of when a right is essential and when it is not. There is also the possibility that some states regard a situation abroad as not worthy of being considered as dignifying or the other way around. These ambiguity leaves one, not only states, wondering about what they meant when they talked about it in the preamble of the three documents that establish a milestone in the human rights field.
Photo Credit: Joseph Morris