Seventy years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Since then, that document has provided a beacon for citizens and activists, and laid out for governments and their leaders the basic rights that their publics should enjoy. The declaration has been violated or ignored countless times, but it has also facilitated great progress. When governments fall short, they should be held accountable for their failures, but we should also acknowledge the wisdom and the idealism of the authors of that document, and strive to match them.
The declaration was produced by the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which was chaired and animated by Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the 32nd president of the United States. She was joined by 17 other members who came from a range of political, cultural and religious backgrounds. They worked against the backdrop of two world wars, the deaths of millions of human beings and the prospect of a nuclear conflagration that threatened unprecedented destruction. Their discussion took a new and fundamentally different starting point as Emilio Alvarez Icaza Longoria, a Mexican representative, explained: “It was the first time, when talking about human rights, that we are talking not about ‘citizens’ but about ‘human beings’ — a critical difference.”
Two years of negotiations yielded a document that was put before the General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948, for a vote. As she submitted the charter for consideration, Roosevelt argued that the world was “at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.”
The draft was passed by a unanimous 48-0 vote, although eight countries abstained: six Soviet bloc countries, South Africa, because its apartheid government was based on the notion of racial discrimination, and Saudi Arabia, which argued that some rights in the charter were not consistent with Islamic law.
Much of the declaration’s power derives from its simplicity. It has a preamble and just 30 articles. It begins with the blunt statement in Article 1 that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 2 continues, noting that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind. …” The remaining 28 articles flesh out details of those rights in simple language. It bans slavery and servitude, forced marriage, arbitrary arrest and any interference with privacy and correspondence. All human beings have, it declared, the right to own property, speak freely and be educated.
Those claims are not without controversy. Despots disregard them as empty rhetoric. More thoughtful critics claim it has a Western bias, made plain in Roosevelt’s reference to the Magna Carta. Religious or dynastic societies were aggrieved since the rights identified in the declaration derived from birth and were not bestowed by a god, a divinely appointed representative or some equally authoritative leader. In fact, the universality of the declaration undercuts criticism that it reflects a particular worldview by insisting that it applies to all individuals. To claim that it cannot be the foundation of a rights frameworks is to concede that there can be no democratic world: The essence of the objection is that inequality is justified.
A more thoughtful charge is that the declaration is not a treaty, but is only a moral statement and lacking legal force. That is true, but the power of a moral imperative or a goal must not be discounted. The charter was the first step toward binding international human rights treaties and other humanitarian work worldwide; governments and civil society groups use it to press for more concrete measures. In 1976, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force, providing legal status to most of the declaration. And after seven decades, the declaration has acquired the force of customary international law.
Sadly, humankind will always fall short of such grand objectives. There is, remarked one observer, “an enduring sameness to our cruelty.” But it is always important to note how far the world has come. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights frames efforts in this vital area of human endeavor. It should remind the world that while we consider such rights to be inherent, they must be fought for and are always at risk. They are not a given.
Even countries like Japan, which enjoys many, if not most, freedoms should use the declaration as a benchmark, not only to evaluate relations with other countries but the status of our own society as well. This assessment assumes even greater significance as the prospect of a debate over the Constitution looms. We should celebrate 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but gird for still more fights to realize its objectives.