Rights Turns 50
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."
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.
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
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
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.