Fifty years ago, on Dec. 10, 1948, 49 out of 57 members of the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time in history, the international community sought to protect human dignity by declaring what peoples should expect of their societies and governments.
Through this troubled half-century, the world has built on that foundation. The Universal Declaration was a statement, without the force of international law, setting forth "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations." It proclaimed the right to fair trial; equality before the law; free expression of thought, conscience, and religion; and peaceful assembly. It also recognized the right to own property, work, join unions, be educated, and have an adequate standard of living.
Enumerating rights and establishing them in international law were two different matters. Eighteen years would elapse before, in 1966, two binding covenants on political and civil rights and economic, social, and cultural rights were adopted by the General Assembly. Another 10 years passed before the first covenant, on civil and political rights, was signed by a sufficient number of nations to go into force.
The delays were understandable. With the breakup of empires, new nations entered the UN with different views and sensitivities. Authoritarian regimes spawned in the cold war paid little heed to the covenants, and democracies, in the name of security, tolerated their excesses. Against the backdrop of Nazi atrocities, the United States took the lead in pressing for the Universal Declaration. It subsequently has been the leader in turning the spotlight on human rights violations in other countries. Nevertheless, even Washington has had difficulties in accepting the legal obligations of the covenants. Carter administration efforts to establish human rights as a diplomatic goal had to be balanced with requirements of security and trade. Questions of sovereignty, conflict with domestic law, and ideology arose when the covenants were presented for US Senate ratification. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights wasn't ratified until 1992.
Raising particularly difficult domestic issues, the covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights remains unratified. And Americans were shocked when other nations applied the Universal Declaration to practices such as the death penalty in the US.
It is not surprising that nations have resisted the application of the principles of the Universal Declaration. Such principles are related to the most sensitive aspects of politics and governance. What is surprising is that, despite resistance and cases of egregious brutality on every continent, the global community has continued to erect barriers to human rights violations.
These covenants were followed by the human rights "basket" of the Helsinki Accords (1975), US-mandated reports on conditions in UN member nations (1978), the Vienna UN conference on human rights (1993), and the appointment of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1996).
Progress has been spurred by at least three factors. Increasing democratization, especially in former dictatorships such as Argentina and Chile, gave citizens a voice and judicial protection they hadn't had before. The information revolution meant that people were more able to reach beyond national boundaries to tell their stories and hear others'. Global communications encouraged networks of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists which through the Internet and fax kept the world informed of violations and sparked international pressures. Regimes could no longer easily hide torture, detentions without trial, and contempt for rule of law.
Fifty years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented a hope that governments would recognize obligations of fairness and freedom toward their peoples. Even as the tragic and turbulent half century nears its close, that hope is being realized.
* David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, now lives in Charlottesville, Va.