When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 65 years ago, the most genocidal war in modern history had ended only three years earlier. Racial segregation was still the law in much of the United States, the Gulag prison system was active in the Soviet Union, and apartheid reigned in South Africa. By those standards human rights progress since has been huge.
But if we zero in on human rights today, the picture isn't 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 reluctant to ratify even the noncontroversial Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
But whoever said that the achievement of respect for human rights would proceed quickly or in a linear fashion? Indeed, 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. Seen from this perspective, 2013 brought some notable advances.
In Congo, the UN peacekeeping force, criticized for 14 years of passivity, launched its Forward Intervention Brigade. Fighting alongside government troops, it forced the M23 militia, responsible for numerous rapes and killings, to announce a cessation of hostilities.
The French acted similarly when they beat back an Al Qaeda-affiliated militia in Mali. Such actions would have been far less likely 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, also known as Burma, is still battling with Karen rebels and has done far too little to protect the Rohingya Muslims from attack by Buddhist extremists, Burmese President Thein Sein knows that his campaign for international acceptance will be unsuccessful if his country continues to imprison peaceful political dissenters.
Would a world indifferent to human rights have taken a young Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai to its heart when Taliban gunmen shot her as payback for her advocacy of women's education? Malala became the first girl nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In her neighboring India, public outrage over the fatal gang rape of a woman in Delhi resulted in improved, if still highly flawed, new laws against rape.
And in the US the number of states allowing same-sex marriage doubled to 16, and Maryland became the 18th state to abolish the death penalty. The public demonstrations in Ukraine now reflect not only the attraction of European Union-style freedoms but a resurgence of the "people power" that flourished a decade ago in that country.
Perhaps most remarkable is China's announcement that it will abolish "reeducation 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 US has learned at Guantánamo Bay.
Impatience is an understandable reaction to the global evolution of human rights. 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 wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 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.
In spite of setbacks, 2013 shows that the march toward justice may take a long, rugged, and sometimes winding road, but it does move forward. The past year shed light on clear pitfalls along the way but also offered clear way marks of progress.
William F. Schulz, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, is the former executive director of Amnesty International USA.