Remembering Charles H. Malik

As the recent protests kicked-off in Egypt two weeks ago, I was working on a thesis chapter about the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In particular, I was looking at the drafting process and the intellectual debates that defined the famous human rights document. A key figure in that debate was the Lebanese representative, Charles Habib Malik, and I thought it worth pausing to remember an important figure in the contemporary human rights movement, who did much to develop human rights both intellectually and politically.

“They want justice… They want freedom… They want a sense of equality with the rest of the world.”

Malik defined himself as Lebanese, Christian and Arab – identities that importantly influenced his thinking and defense of human rights as a moral and political project. Despite claims that he was “Westernized” and that he was clearly a strong opponent of international communism, Malik was not a conventional Western liberal. In particular, he clearly saw himself as a fundamentally religious thinker whose political project was not only the defense of individual rights but ensuring the equal standing of Arab countries in world politics, which went together with a more general concern for securing the independence of colonized peoples and the protection of small states from great powers.

Independence springs from the Arab sense of the difference from others, a sense that has been sharpened in recent centuries by the relative isolation of the Arabs from the rest of the world. Unity takes on many modalities: from the mild form of general community and consultation enshrined in the Arab League to the extreme form of complete political unification desired by certain nationalist movements, particularly in Iraq and Syria. But regardless of its modality, every Arab feels an immediate mystical unity with every other Arab.

Lack of love. Strategy, commerce, exploitation, securing an imperial route: these were why the West for the most part came to the Near East, not because it loved us. Add to this the immense racial arrogance of modern Europe. The West has not been true to itself, and therefore it could not have been true to us.

(Charles Malik, “The Near East: The Search for Truth,” Foreign Affairs, 30, 1952)

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