Questions We Must Ask as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 65 today
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 (Human Rights Day)
Jill Savitt, Coordinator for Human
Rights Exhibits, National Center for Civil and Human Rights
Imagine a world where all people are treated with dignity and everyone is able to fulfill his or her potential. That is the world Eleanor Roosevelt and the other drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) envisaged in the late 1940s when they began working on the document now known as the “international bill of rights for all humankind.”
The UDHR, adopted on Dec. 10, 1948, celebrates its 65th anniversary this week, providing an ideal moment for reflection, especially in light of the fact that a new center devoted to human rights — the first of its kind — will soon open its doors.
The idea of codifying a standard for human rights was conceived at a unique moment in history. The horrors of World War II and the Holocaust were the catalysts, events the UDHR calls “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”
With profound shame, the international community recognized its failure to stop the systematic extermination by the Nazis and their collaborators of roughly six million Jews as well as hundreds of thousands of Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, Roma, and disabled people.
The epic scale of this tragedy generated a groundbreaking response: the creation of a global institution devoted to international peace and security. As one of its first tasks, the members of the new United Nations sought to a create a declaration that would establish the principle every human being is entitled to basic rights by virtue of their humanity, and that protecting those rights was a collective obligation of governments.
Enter Eleanor Roosevelt, appointed by President Truman to represent the United States in negotiations. Roosevelt became chair of the drafting committee, and she and her colleagues, drawing on cultural and legal traditions from around the world — including the Magna Carta, the French Declaration of Man, the US Constitution, and a range of religious texts — set about their task over many months.
With great political savvy (including several meetings over tea in her own apartment), Roosevelt persuaded diplomats from a range of countries — China, Russia, Canada, Lebanon, and India among them — to agree to 30 articles, each outlining a right. These rights included civil and political rights (to vote, to speak freely, to freedom of religion among others) as well as economic and social rights (to education, health care, housing, and more). You can read the UDHR here
While not binding itself, the UDHR is the foundation of a range of international human rights laws which governments must obey. These laws primarily focus on how governments should treat their people, but they also make governments responsible for protecting individuals from abuse by other people.
As news of the day shows, such laws are not always followed. But they do provide a way to evaluate governments and hold them accountable when they fall short. The accountability takes the form of human rights activism, prosecution through international courts, and public condemnation, among other tools.
For those of us in America, this anniversary of the UDHR — coinciding as it does with the impending opening of our National Center for Civil and Human Rights — provides an ideal moment to ask a critical question: How do we rank, as a country, on human rights?
This means not only asking about civil rights – which Americans are most familiar with and where great progress has certainly been made, especially for minorities and women — but about the other rights in the UDHR. How do we rank on providing adequate housing, a decent education, a living wage, or access to health care?
The answers to such questions recall the world imagined by the drafters of the UDHR almost seven decades ago, a world where all people are treated with dignity and everyone is able to fulfill his or her potential.
As the curator of the Center’s global human rights exhibit, I hope we can use this occasion to ask ourselves: Where in the world are people lacking dignity – and what can we do to change that? And, where in America are people living without dignity and the opportunity to realize their full potential – and what would it take to change that?
You don’t have long to wait to get some answers: May 22 is just five months away.
Jill Savitt is the coordinator for the Center’s human rights exhibits. She also serves as a special adviser at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., working with the Committee on Conscience, which focuses on contemporary genocides.
Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Public domain image)