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December 31, 2011

The first of all Human Rights

Human rights seem to be falling out of favor. I’ve heard old men deride them, as if they were some new legislative fashion akin to political correctness or “austerity” with their pensions.

Recent events in Europe, with the so-called European Court of Human Rights, have tried to bend the meaning of “human rights” in that political direction.  Many forget that the tradition of human rights goes back to long before Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt, of course,  helped write the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Roosevelt represented the United States, while other representatives for Lebanon, China, the Soviet Union collaborated.

At the end of World War II, the world had just seen horrors that no one ever wanted to visit again. The Universal Declaration was a statement that humanity had decided to leave those evils behind.

The rights they agreed upon represented the same human rights accepted in all world religions and philosophies, from Confucianism to Christianity.

However, about 150 years before that, in Egypt, representatives of many nations signed another document, declaring one human right above all others.

These representatives were not writing at the end of a war, but they were complaining about abuses by soldiers under Ali pacha.

Ali pacha was a representative of the Ottoman Empire who acted more like a warlord than a political leader.   He treated his little piece of Egypt as a personal playground.

Ali pacha’s soldiers practised their shooting in the Frankish quarter of Alexandria, or the part of the city where the Europeans and their protected peoples resided.

There were two gunshots found in the Swedish flag. The room where the Spanish representative kept his  family had been shot at.  When it was time for Alexandria’s Christians to go to church, Ali pacha’s troops fired at the church, and along the route. They had no respect for Christian residents of Egypt, and they soon extorted the Muslims as well.

Citizen Drovetti, a representative of the secular French Republic, drafted a complaint which all the European Consuls signed.   The complaint listed some of the crimes committed by the soldiers of Ali pacha.  The document mentioned “Le premier des droits humains”, the first of all human rights.

This right had been violated. The signers of the document knew that Muslims and Christians alike respected this right, but that cruel bullies, who might have claimed membership either religion, did not.

The first of all human rights was “la liberté du culte”. I’m not sure exactly how to translate Drovetti’s words there. La Liberté du culte could be translated either as freedom of worship or freedom of religion.

Whichever it was, in that day in Alexandra, both Christians and Muslims believed that it was first among human rights.  If only people throughout the world would see things that way today.

More on Drovetti:

Napoleon’s Proconsul in Egypt: Life and Times of Bernardino Drovetti

Special thanks to

  • The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth,
  • The University of Wales Aberystwyth, Hugh Owen Library,
  • Ceredigion Libraries
  • and The University of Wales Lampeter, library.