Despite setbacks, UN ushered in 65 years of progress on human rights

The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted 65 years ago paved the way for decades of progress. The picture of human rights today is hardly as encouraging. But changing norms takes time and doesn't follow a linear path. From this view, 2013 brought some notable advances.

Tsering Topgyal/AP
Indian Dalits, members of the outcast community once known as untouchables, applaud a speaker at a sit-in protest on Human Rights Day near the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, India, Dec. 10. Contributor William F. Schulz writes: 'Those who authored the UDHR 65 years ago knew that they would not live to see the world transformed to their full liking, but they had faith that it would gravitate in the direction they envisioned.'

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the instrument that underlies all subsequent human rights treaties, covenants, and conventions. The UDHR was adopted in 1948, just three years after the end of the most genocidal war in modern history. Racial segregation was still the law in much of the United States; the Gulag prison system was active in the Soviet Union; apartheid reigned in South Africa, as we have been so poignantly reminded by the death of Nelson Mandela last week. By those standards human rights progress has been enormous in the past 65 years.

But if we zero in on human rights today, the picture is hardly as encouraging. The Arab Spring has turned to winter; Russia is a democracy in name only; the Syrian civil war is taking an enormous toll, especially on children; the UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are 43.7 million refugees or internally displaced people around the world due to conflict and violence; and the US Senate appears reticent to ratify even the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, one of the least controversial treaties ever proposed.

But who ever said that the achievement of respect for human rights would proceed quickly or in a linear fashion? Though the UDHR is widely regarded as customary international law and binding for all nations, its value is equally great as an articulation of norms, what its preamble calls “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Indeed, much of human rights law is unenforceable at the international level, and hence the advancement of human rights is largely dependent on changes in norms. For better or worse, those norms change gradually, sometimes advancing, sometimes regressing.

The good news is, however, that they do change and usually in a progressive direction. For example, the UDHR itself makes no mention of gay and lesbian rights; most of its authors would probably be surprised to learn of the growing acceptance of those rights, at least in Europe and the United States.

Seen from this perspective, 2013 brought some notable advances. In Congo, the UN peacekeeping force, criticized for 14 years for its passivity, launched its Forward Intervention Brigade and, fighting alongside government troops, forced the M23 militia, responsible for numerous rapes and killings, to announce a cessation of hostilities. This would have been unthinkable before the UN adopted its 2005 resolution on the “Responsibility to Protect,” affirming the international community’s obligation to protect civilians at risk from war crimes, thereby shifting the norm regarding when active military intervention is appropriate.

Or consider Myanmar’s decision to release hundreds of political prisoners. Though the country is still battling with Karen rebels and has done far too little to protect the Rohingya Muslims from attack by Buddhist extremists, Myanmar President Thein Sein knows that his campaign for international acceptance will be unsuccessful if his country continues to imprison peaceful political dissenters. 

But perhaps most remarkable is China’s announcement that it will abolish so-called “re-education through labor camps,” into which tens of thousands of Chinese citizens have been thrown without trial, often for the pettiest alleged offenses. It is too early to tell whether this is a harbinger of larger changes in China. But abolition would never have occurred absent a growing international insistence that to be a “great power” means to allow those accused of crimes a chance to defend themselves, as the United States has learned at Guantanamo Bay.  

Impatience is an understandable reaction to the global evolution of human rights, especially for anyone who cares about their progress. To learn of suffering and not to want it abated as soon as possible is the sign of a callous heart. But just as damaging is to adopt a cynical attitude toward human rights bred by a focus solely on its short-term setbacks.

Those who authored the UDHR 65 years ago knew that they would not live to see the world transformed to their full liking, but they had faith that it would gravitate in the direction they envisioned. It is impossible to compare the world of 1948 to today and not be convinced that indeed it has.

William F. Schulz, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, is former executive director of Amnesty International USA.

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