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Former Soviet Dissident Reflects On Relevance Of Rights Declaration

"The world doesn't change much," Vladimir Bukovsky says. "Details change, contexts change, but the basic principles remain immutable."

RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke with former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky about the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its role in the demise of the Soviet Union, and its potential to influence the situation in Russia.

RFE/RL: How would you describe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its role over the last 60 years?

Vladimir Bukovsky: The declaration had a rather unusual fate. Written in 1948, it didn't have much importance for a relatively long time -- about 20 years. Then people suddenly remembered it and began using it as a text, a set of established norms. As a declaration, it didn't have a binding status. Later, in 1968, pacts on civil and social rights were drafted on the basis of this declaration. These pacts were binding. The declaration was rather the expression of an intention, of a desire.

Its articles are very general and remain influential to this day. They are accepted as legal norms in the legislations of numerous countries. But many of these articles are still unimplemented and disputed in many countries. So this declaration's fate has been rather unusual. I don't think those who wrote it had much hope that it would become one of the 20th century's important, influential documents. This happened because someone somewhere eventually decided to make these norms binding. This gave the declaration substance. Initially, it was more of a naive document, reflecting the hopes of the Western world's liberal community.

I think current Kremlin leaders continue to think that it's meant for the Third World, for developing countries, that it doesn't concern them.
How relevant is this document today in Russia? Has it remained a naive document for the current authorities?

Bukovsky: If a government -- especially the government of a superpower -- doesn't want to respect international norms, it's just not going to respect them, and there's little the world can do about it. But the fact that the declaration spawned numerous legal acts and international agreements, that it was worked out in detail and put in practice, has given this document moral authority. Since its articles have come to be considered as the norm, nobody is able to ignore them. Even the Soviet Union pretended to respect these norms, although of course it violated them massively on a daily basis."

I remember an amusing episode when we began referring to this declaration. The authorities gave an amusing answer. They said, "This document wasn't written for you, it was written for people in Africa. It's not applicable here." That's how Soviet authorities saw it. But eventually, they began treating these norms more carefully and pretending to abide by them.

RFE/RL: Does the current government still consider that the declaration is not applicable in Russia, or has the situation changed?

Bukovsky: I think current Kremlin leaders continue to think that it's meant for the Third World, for developing countries, that it doesn't concern them. The Soviets had their pride; they looked down on the bourgeois. This is [the Russian leadership's] traditional, stereotypical approach to all international legal norms. But they are in for a big disappointment if they disregard these norms. There is a general moral pressure from the world to respect the principles enshrined in the declaration.

RFE/RL: Why should they be disappointed? What do they care?

Bukovsky: In moments of crisis, international recognition and respect can suddenly give place to serious financial troubles, to capital flight. As strange as it may sound, these things are related. Many have understood this -- in the West a long time ago, in the Third World increasingly, while in Russia and China people are still struggling to grasp this.

RFE/RL: Has the world become a completely different place since the declaration was adopted 60 years ago, or has it remained the same in essence?

Bukovsky: The world doesn't change much. Details change, contexts change, but the basic principles remain immutable. If you look carefully at the declaration, there's nothing really new in it, even if you look as far back as antiquity or Roman laws. The elements contained in the declaration can be found almost anywhere.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, is it possible to create a document that would legally bind people to abide by moral values?

Bukovsky: No, I don't believe morality can be codified. Attempts to do so will always be fruitless, just like attempts to codify ideology. These notions are opposed -- on the one side, dry logic; on the other, emotions, hopes, illusions. It's very difficult to combine all these things.