A quietly-revolutionary document that changed our world for the better, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, turns 60 this year.
It first saw the light of day in 1948, on the 10th of December, thanks to the United Nations and the brilliant work of Eleanor Roosevelt, dynamic head of the UN team.
Governments that voluntarily came together in 1945 to form the now-familiar organization, the United Nations, agreed to a basic operating principle: human rights. They determined that every individual is automatically entitled to all human rights, by virtue of being alive. Nothing more than that—just being alive. A person’s race, color, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national origin, economic or other status would no longer be an obstacle along her or his way to enjoying rights.
The Universal Declaration broke new ground. Governments for the first time agreed that people from every segment of this planet would thereafter be entitled to rights, be entitled to know what they are, and be entitled to claim them. The notions in the Universal Declaration sound simple enough, but over the past 60 years, they have profoundly changed the human condition everywhere.
However, there’s often a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. The “cup” grudgingly doing the pouring is a government that wants to hold tight to its power and not give any away, while the “lip” waiting to receive are populations eager for their rights. To fill the gap ‘twixt cup and lip are the human rights norms and laws that followed in the wake of the Universal Declaration.
The five fields of human rights laid out in the Universal Declaration and developed into treaties are called civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The Universal Declaration begins: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights (Article 1).” Is that in fact the way it is in today’s world? Aren’t some human beings treated as less free and less equal from the moment they are born?
When you read, in Article 25, “All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection (social right),” you may find yourself questioning whether that right is currently being respected across the board. Or check out two Universal Declaration Articles on discrimination. One of them, Article 23, states: “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work (economic right).” Article 7 covers the issue from a different angle: “All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination…(civil right).” From this emphasis on discrimination, you might correctly conclude that non-discrimination is a core principle in human rights. Yet Proposition 8, approved by voters in the recent elections, calls for amending the California State Constitution in order to affirm that some individuals who claim the right to enter into marriage with other individuals of the same sex will be treated differently. Is this discrimination? To further complicate this, look at the promise laid out in Article 12 that still awaits fulfillment: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home…(political right).”
The first 60 years were hard. Goals have not all been reached. So let’s raise a hearty toast to the 60th, and then, everyone back to work.
Rita Maran is vice president of the United Nations Association—USA, East Bay and Northern California districts.