Recommitting to human rights, 70 years on

By Margaret Huang, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA

Seventy years ago, the world’s leaders, reeling from the still-fresh horrors of World War II, agreed to establish a global system in which countries would work together to ensure that death and destruction on such a wide scale would never happen again.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR for short), proclaimed and adopted on December 10, 1948, was constructed by a diverse group of men and women from across the world, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It spelled out, in clear language and succinct articles that could be easily understood by all readers, those rights inherent to everyone, no matter where they lived. No matter what other protections a government provides, the UDHR was a revolutionary document that spells out the rights that belong to each of us by virtue of our being human.

By 1948 was a time of great sadness about the atrocities of war. It was resolved that we must avoid similar human rights violations in the future. The international community called for a document that states things as fundamental as “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” The UDHR was meant to serve as a vision and a guide for future generations to learn from the destructive ethos of the past. It was hoped that, when the memories of the Holocaust, of genocide, and of the crimes against humanity experienced during World War II would start to fade, our global commitment to recognizing and protecting everyone’s human rights would stay strong.

Seventy years after its adoption, the UDHR is more relevant today than ever. From the hostility toward refugees and asylum-seekers around the world, to the oppression of dissidents by autocratic leaders, to police shootings and brutality against young people of color, to crimes against humanity in places like Myanmar, Yemen and Syria, it is critical that we reaffirm our commitment to the UDHR and all that it guarantees.

At a recent dialogue to mark the UDHR’s anniversary, then-UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said that the rise of leaders like Donald Trump is threatening to obscure the lessons of the UDHR. Rather than being an appeal to patriotism, the nationalism that is currently sweeping the globe is actually an appeal to promote one’s own interests at the cost of others’. It is an ideology that regards rights and prosperity as zero-sum games that require some people to give up their rights so that others might enjoy theirs. In actuality, that kind of thinking might actually be how the world comes undone.

It was that kind of thinking that spurred the efforts of the authors of the UDHR. They wanted to counter the nationalist appeals that had led to the world war, and they wanted to offer an alternative vision that recognized how the entire world would benefit from a shared vision of peace and respect for human rights.

These are certainly discouraging times for human rights defenders, in all regions of the world. Here in the United States, the Trump administration is committed to policies not based on justice and human rights but on hate and fear. But there are also millions of people here at home and around the world who believe in the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and share its vision.

We who believe in the UDHR know that families who flee violence and threats should not be thrown into border camps or detention facilities.

We know that you can’t value a journalist’s life — or anyone else’s — any less because of the size of a defense contract.

We know that we must fight impunity for law enforcement agents and military personnel who break the rules on the use of lethal force.

We know that demonizing entire groups of people and forcibly separating children from parents is exactly what led to the drafting of the UDHR in the first place.

We know that we’ve seen these abuses before, but there’s still time to stop history from repeating itself.

This December 10, it’s time to commemorate the 70thanniversary of the UDHR by reaffirming the vision it espouses. We must call on leaders of the present to heed the words of their forebears, but it is also incumbent on each of us to stand up for all human beings “born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Today, human rights are as vitally important as ever.

As Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” What matters today is our commitment to human rights for all, and we must stand together and speak out to ensure that the UDHR vision stays strong.

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