NEW YORK – The most important contribution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 60 years ago, on December 10, 1948, was to assert a powerful idea: rights are universal. Rights do not depend on membership of a particular community or citizenship in a certain state. They do not derive from a social contract.
Rather, because rights are universal, they are attributes of all human beings. Indeed, they are part of what makes us human. Each of us may enjoy rights. Those who exercise power may do so only in limited ways. The limits are set by rights.
It is, of course, possible to trace the concept of universal rights at least as far back as seventeenth-century English thinking about natural law. The concept was partially embraced in the French Declaration of Rights of 1789 and, to a greater extent, in Thomas Jefferson’s language in the same era about “inalienable rights.” It also shaped the thinking of those in England who led the anti-slavery struggle of the second half of the eighteenth century, the first human rights movement.
Yet the Universal Declaration marked a giant step forward, as the world’s governments – with abstentions from the Soviet bloc states, Saudi Arabia, and apartheid South Africa, but with no votes in opposition – agreed that rights should take precedence over state power.
One way to think about the six decades that have elapsed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration is as a struggle to implement its promises. For a long time, it was a losing struggle, marked especially by the spread of both communist and anti-communist tyrannies.
Things began to change in the 1980’s with the fall of military dictatorships in Latin America and in such East Asian countries as the Philippines and South Korea, and with the growing number of people engaged in the struggle for human rights in the Soviet empire. By the end of the decade, many Soviet bloc regimes had collapsed.
A factor that contributed to their demise was a shift in thinking that transformed the conflict between East and West away from one that emphasized economic systems. Instead, it was the contrast between totalitarianism and respect for rights that completely discredited the oppressive regimes linked to Moscow and helped to bring them down. South Africa’s largely peaceful transition to a multi-racial democracy in the early 1990’s was a further advance for rights.
But the last decade of the twentieth century was also indelibly stained by ethnic cleansing in ex-Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda, and during the current decade the tide has seemed to turn against the rights cause. Powerful states such as China and Russia are not limiting themselves to authoritarian rule at home, but are also supporting those in other countries engaged in similar practices. The same is true of lesser powers such as Iran and Venezuela.
Moreover, the United States has been squandering much of its capacity to promote human rights internationally. In responding to the terrorist attacks on its own soil on September 11, 2001, the US has resorted to such measures as prolonged indefinite detention without charges, trials before military commissions lacking due process safeguards, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees, including torture.
Other governments and intergovernmental bodies have not filled the gap left by the US. The new UN Human Rights Council has so far disappointed those who hoped that it would be a more principled and effective body than its discredited predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission. The European Union has been a positive force in promoting rights in those countries aspiring to membership, but it has not demonstrated a capacity to exercise influence worldwide.
Today, the most effective force promoting human rights is global public opinion, informed and mobilized by the large and growing nongovernmental human rights movement, which, as in the recent war between Georgia and Russia, has focused international attention on violations of the laws of armed conflict that protect noncombatants. It has also led the way in creating international criminal tribunals that prosecute and punish those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. These achievements are not stopping war, but they are reducing the number of terrible human rights violations that accompany armed conflict.
It is, of course, dismaying that 60 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so many governments disregard the principles that they endorsed so long ago. Yet without the legitimacy derived from the Universal Declaration and its role in promoting compliance, the nongovernmental human rights movement could not have developed into a global force. The fact that the movement continues to secure advances even in difficult times is an indication of the enduring significance of what was achieved in 1948 when the world’s governments declared that rights are universal.