December 10th marks the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. This year—marked as it has been by xenophobia and post-truth politics—, it seems especially important to reflect on the aspirational and affirmational document.
After the realization of the full extent of abuses committed during World War II, the newly formed United Nations compelled the creation of the Commission on Human Rights as a standing body in the UN in 1946. The Commission then created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee, chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Over the course of two years, the Drafting Committee assembled a document that, though rightly criticized in some important regards, was very much the first of its kind and became a stepping stone to what is now recognized as International Bill of Human Rights.
Comprised of 30 articles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines those inalienable rights as, generally, agreed upon by the international community. Though the Declaration does not carry the weight of law, its adoption and ratification by the international community morally binds member nations to pursue, secure, and protect the ideal, inalienable rights enumerated in the document. These ideal rights include the freedom to emigrate, freedom of expression and assembly, the freedom to protest and resist tyrannical governments. Further, the document expresses that—beyond what are often considered the basic necessities of food, water, and shelter—education, reproductive freedom, healthcare, living wages, and equal pay for equal work are things to which all human beings are entitled.
Seventy years ago today, forty-eight out of fifty-eight members voted in favor of adopting the Declaration. No nation actually voted against it, but there were a number of abstentions and a few nations that just did not weigh in at all, not even to formally abstain. It was ratified six days later. Over the following three decades, two more documents were adopted and ratified by the United Nations: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which became legally-binding, enforceable international treaties upon the ratification of the requisite number of member states. These two Covenants, taken with the Declaration, form the International Bill of Human Rights which has been adopted as the framework of other international treaties since, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In an effort to hold ratifying nations accountable for their abiding those treaties, Human Rights Treaty Bodies were formed and given the authority to adopt interpretations of provisions outlined in the treaties, to investigate complaints of violation of the rights enumerated in those treaties, and to consider member nations’ reports on their work to abide by the treaties.
For better or for worse, the UN and its various Treaty Bodies are not empowered to do much in the way of enforcement of those treaties. In an attempt clearly demonstrate that the United Nations is not to be a governing body that supplants the sovereignty of its member nations, the UN has adopted a general policy of non-interference unless assistance is requested or the situation qualifies as an unprecedented crisis. So, essentially, while these treaties are legally binding, enforcement mostly relies on the honor system. And, apparently, a lot of the signatory nations aren’t quite so honorable.
That said, there is a group with the power to enforce those treaties: us. Each of us can make it a priority to defend the essential freedoms to which every person is entitled. In fact, that is exactly what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is imploring us to do.
Of course it is an enormous job, but there are over seven billion of us. However isolated and overwhelmed we may each feel as we look at all the pain in the world, it is necessary to remember that “we the people” are not voiceless and we can collaborate to work toward holding the powers that be accountable and building a more just and compassionate world.
So, in honor of the 70th annual Human Rights Day, let us reflect on the optimistic and achievable goals set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then, let’s find ways large and small to stand up for someone’s rights today. And the next day. And the day after that.
Learn more about ways you can help defend human rights: take action with Amnesty International, take action with Human Rights Watch (US folks, the #CallItOut campaign is worth your attention), and check out other human rights organizations—like Madre—that are doing great work.