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Get With the Human Rights Declaration!


Articulate Your Ideals
Treaties Unsigned
Moral Touchstone

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience in our time,” commented Pope John Paul II in 1995.

This document (, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly 60 years ago this month, was a major postwar accomplishment. It was crafted and approved in the narrow window of opportunity while the horrors of the Holocaust extermination of Jews and Gypsies were still fresh in people’s minds and just before the Berlin Airlift ushered in the Cold War. It is a testament to the vision and energy of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chair of the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Declaration.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon wrote A World Made New, the definitive work about Mrs. Roosevelt and the Declaration of Human Rights.

According to Glendon, the Declaration “serves today as the principal common reference point for cross-cultural discussion of how we are to order the human future in an increasingly interdependent world” (Catholic News Service, May 5, 2008).


Articulate Your Ideals

Mrs. Roosevelt knew very well what the Declaration was and wasn’t: “It is not a treaty,” she admitted in 1948. “It is not an international agreement. It is not and does not purport to be a statement of law or legal obligation. It is a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms.”

Stating our ideals is always good—even if we don’t live up to them. We haven’t jettisoned the Ten Commandments, no matter how many we fail to keep.

While it is not a binding document for any of the U.N. members, the Declaration is an important tool in applying diplomatic and moral pressure on governments to observe the Declaration’s 30 articles.

Some 60 treaties since have elaborated on various aspects of the Declaration, according to Bert B. Lockwood, a University of Cincinnati law professor now in his 27th year of editing Human Rights Quarterly, published by Johns Hopkins University Press (

Of these subsequent treaties, the United States has ratified only five of them. Because international covenants are considered treaties, they must be approved by the U.S. Senate for our country to be bound by them.

Even on those we’ve ratified, we’ve attached reservations. Sometimes, that’s been for a good reason. For instance, the 1966 Civil and Political Rights Covenant (ratified by the U.S. in 1992) requires governments to agree to suppress war propaganda and incitement to racial discrimination. Definitely, this is something the United States can endorse, but our First Amendment allows even hateful words in our free speech.

And we never agreed to the second protocol to this covenant, because that requires abolishing the death penalty. Moreover, the main document contains a right to universal health care, on which this country’s commitment wavers.

Our 1988 ratification of the 1948 treaty against genocide included a reservation that the World Court has no jurisdiction in our country.

We have ratified the convention against torture and the one against racial discrimination, but we know we are vulnerable on the racial issue.

The only other U.N. member that hasn’t signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which would outlaw child soldiers and child prostitution, is Somalia, according to Professor Lockwood.

We’ve never signed or ratified the documents on the basic rights for migrant workers or the handicapped.

It’s true that the United States is working on most of these issues, independent of international oversight, but we value our national sovereignty so highly we’re removing ourselves from the international discussion.

The original Universal Declaration of Human Rights became a moral touchstone on which everything else is based. “Sixty years into a legal revolution,” says Professor Lockwood, “isn’t a particularly long time historically. Human rights is clearly an idea which has spread and has made very significant strides.”

Yet if today you read the Preamble setting forth the reasons why the Declaration was deemed necessary in 1948, you can see why it is still needed: “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts, which have outraged the conscience of mankind....” Just think of recent genocides such as those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Yes, there’s a disconnect between the ideals of the world community and the international law’s real power to protect people. So more—not less—needs to be done.

When Pope Benedict XVI addressed the United Nations last April, he pointed out, “The promotion of human rights remains the most effective strategy for eliminating inequalities between countries and social groups, and for increasing security. Indeed, the victims of hardship and despair, whose human dignity is violated with impunity, become easy prey to the call of violence....”

Not only is it the moral thing to do, but it is also in our self-interest to promote the human rights of all God’s people.—B.B.


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