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U.N. Declaration of Human
Rights Turns 50

  What's in the Declaration

  Thinking Globally

  Acting Locally


On December 10, 1948, not quite three years into its history, the United Nations produced perhaps its greatest accomplishment: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The world was stunned by the horrors of two world wars, struggling to rebuild and to cope with decolonization in Africa and Oceania. Amidst Cold War rhetoric and after surviving 1,400 votes on every word, the declaration was adopted.

It has held up through the years as a Magna Charta, a Bill of Rights, for the international community. Like the knights of King Arthur's court who committed themselves to a rule of law and "might for right," the then-58 member states set forth the ideals to which they agreed to hold themselves and others accountable. Humanity entered a new age that day.

The declaration is "a living document that challenges every nation every day to live up to the high standards we have set for ourselves," Craig Kuehl, a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, said last April.

But Kuehl asked if, 50 years from now, we will "still carry the weight of prejudices, intolerance and injustice on our back." He pleaded that, instead of just pointing out rights abuses, the next century "must be the age of prevention." He said, "We cannot afford to have nations hide their human-rights abuses behind religious, historical or cultural veils."

What's in the Declaration

The declaration consists of a preamble and 30 articles. Article 1 states: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Article 2 insists that these rights and freedoms are for everyone.

Subsequent articles spell out such rights as: to life, liberty and security of person; against slavery and servitude; against torture; against arbitrary arrest and to a fair trial; to freedom of movement within countries, and the right to emigrate and to return; to a nationality; to marry and found a family; to own property; to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; to work, with equal pay for equal work; to join trade unions; to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of self and family, with special assistance for mothers and children; to education, with parents able to choose the kind of education for their children.

Sounds like the political and social agenda of the United States over the last 50 years, doesn't it?

Thinking Globally

This is a time to look back with pride on the declaration and its accomplishments over the years. The declaration itself was not legally binding, but it has spawned an impressive body of international law, like the covenants concerning genocide, racism, the rights of the child and elimination of discrimination against women.

The annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission focuses world attention on cases of torture, disappearances, arbitrary detention, summary executions, violence against women and the right to development. In just the month of October the United Nations High Commissioner investigated the executions of 24 former members of the military junta in Sierra Leone, the murder of a labor activist in Colombia and the expulsion of foreign workers from Belgium.

The declaration is currently providing the basis on which Amnesty International, environmental groups, the Human Genome Project (for mapping and sequencing the human genetic code) and even the Pontifical Council for the Family arguing against abortion can make their cases.

The problem now, as in 1948, is to translate words into deeds. It is time for reinvigorated commitment.

Acting Locally

It is time, for starters, that the United States pay up its membership dues because, without that organization functioning smoothly, none of this human-rights protection can happen.

To recapture its reputation as a promoter of human rights, our country could at least debate the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which other nations have signed. It speaks of governments guaranteeing a just wage for a minimum standard of living, adequate food, housing and clothing, and physical and mental health.

Closer to home, parishes could sponsor a Human Rights Day near the anniversary to talk about the world situation and how Christians can improve it. And intercessions concerning human rights should be a regular part of Sunday Masses.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the head of the U.N. declaration drafting committee from 1946 to 1948. It was she who brought the problem of human rights home: "Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home--so close that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood...the school or college...the factory, farm or office....Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal dignity without discrimination.

"Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."—B.B.

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