Celebrating 60 Years of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an astonishing achievement exactly because it is universal and a declaration, writes William Schulz.

Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was implemented on December 10, 1948. (UN Photo)
Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was implemented on December 10, 1948. (UN Photo)

Robert Frost said that poems begin with a lump in the throat. Human rights do, as well, and have for almost 4,000 years, back at least to 1740 BC when King Hammurabi codified his laws against unfair trials, torture, and slavery. At the end of the day, the reason any one of us cares about human rights is because we feel sick at heart at the sight of misery.

But whose misery? King Hammurabi’s strictures against torture and slavery applied only to his own people, the Babylonians. His archenemies, the Assyrians, fell outside the scope of his code’s protection. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the U.S. Bill of Rights similarly guarantee rights only to their own people. It took a very long time for human beings to feel sick at heart at the sight of everybody’s misery rather than that of just their own clan, tribe, or nation, or just of the nobles, ruling class, or wealthy.

Sixty years ago today on December 10, 1948—3,688 years after Hammurabi—the people of the world managed to agree that everybody’s misery mattered. The United Nations adopted on that day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is still a revolutionary document after 60 years because it is universal and thereby trumps every political ideology, every cultural practice, and every parochial claim.

It is also revolutionary because it is a declaration rather than a revelation. Before the UDHR, people argued for the protection of human dignity on either religious or naturalistic grounds, either because God wanted it or Nature’s law required it.

As a member of the clergy, I would be the last to deny that God is an enviable ally. But I would also be the first to acknowledge that God’s will is sometimes rather hard to discern, even within a singular religious tradition. A group called the Montanists in the early Christian church believed, for example, that only those who ate a steady diet of radishes had any chance to be saved. Had their view prevailed, priests would be offering communion salad today instead of communion wafers.

Natural law is hardly any more helpful. John Locke believed that natural law requires that rights be extended to everyone—except, of course, poor people and women. On the other hand, the Danish novelist Isak Dinesen once asked, “What is a human being but an elaborate machine for turning red wine into urine?” and some might claim that definition to reflect natural law. So who’s to choose between them?

That is why it is fortunate that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a declaration of international opinion, not a revelation of either God or Nature’s predilections. It is a declaration of 33 rights that every single one of us can claim merely for being born human—from the right to a fair trial to the right to marry and receive an education. It is a declaration by the world community of a promise that it has made to itself to order its common life in a certain fashion. Indeed, that is what rights are: promises to which we can appeal in the face of misery.

Does the Universal Declaration have the force of law? It was not originally intended to. Back in 1948, the United States was one of the most vociferous opponents of any implication that the Universal Declaration constituted an enforceable guarantee. The U.S. State Department called it a “hortatory statement of aspirations.” But that exhortation has been cited by courts over the years, incorporated into constitutions, and elaborated upon by additional treaties, covenants, conventions, and protocols. Today, it is regarded as a source of customary law.

The truth is that the legal standing of the Universal Declaration, important as it is, is less critical than its mythic standing. Ask of any of the world’s sacred texts what makes us human and how human life should be ordered, and every one of them will provide us with answers—religious ones such as those in the Bible and the Koran, and cultural ones such as those in the Magna Carta and the Analects of Confucius. But every one of those answers is associated with an idiosyncratic tradition, and only one cuts across every boundary, every margin, every faith, and every culture; only one sacred text in the entire world tackles two of the most controversial subjects in human history—the nature of humanity and the ethics of public order—and still manages to claim the fealty of every quarter, and that is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That is an astonishing achievement, and such a voice would be worth celebrating every year, but it is certainly a time to celebrate on this 60th anniversary—a year in which a newly elected president has promised to return the United States to a position of human rights leadership. The new president will have many allies in that endeavor, but no better friend than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

William F. Schulz, CAP senior fellow in human rights policy, served for 12 years as executive director of Amnesty International USA.

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