By William Fisher
Since Eleanor Roosevelt presented the International Declaration of Human Rights to the United Nations for ratification 37 years ago next week, the world has witnessed – and often ignored -- some of the most egregious rights violations in modern history.
Racial segregation and injustice toward people of color in the United States, Australia and the apartheid regime of South Africa. The Gulags of Russia.
Chemical warfare in Vietnam. Attempted genocide in Rwanda, by Idi Amin in Uganda, Pol Pot's "killing fields" in Cambodia, Sudan’s campaign against the people of Darfur, and the attempted genocide of Kurds in Iraq. Ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and militia violence in Timor. Child labor. Gender discrimination. Denial of universal suffrage. Increasingly repressive governments from the Middle East and North Africa to Latin America to Asia restricting rights of press freedom and peaceful assembly. Failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Gross violations of the Geneva Conventions by the American military and ‘rendition’ of ‘ghost prisoners’ by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to countries known to torture prisoners. Widespread religious and economic discrimination.
The U.N. has also come under fierce criticism regarding its Human Rights Committee, whose members have often included countries known to be gross violators of basic rights.
But when Mrs. Roosevelt, wife of the then-American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, presented the draft Declaration to the U.N. membership, she said it “is based upon the spiritual fact that man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature and through common effort to raise the level of human dignity. We have much to do to fully achieve and to assure the rights set forth in this declaration. But having them put before us with the moral backing of 58 nations will be a great step forward.”
The non-binding Declaration of 1948 identified many rights: life, liberty and security of person, freedom from slavery and servitude, freedom from torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, equality before the law, not being subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, freedom of movement and residence, the right to marriage and to found a family, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, peaceful assembly and association, work, health and education.
But, since its signing, an estimated 60 million people have died or been maimed by war and human rights abuses. And the number of victims continues to climb.
Some human rights observers examine this record and conclude that the United Nations is a toothless tiger, incapable – or unwilling – to move from rhetoric to action.
Others see the glass as half full and claim the historic declaration has made a major contribution toward focusing the world’s attention on the preservation of human rights, despite the failings of so many nations.
Among them is Dr. Omid Safi of Colgate University. He told IPS that the Declaration “has had a major worldwide impact on conversations about human rights. One of the best indications of the impact it has had on Muslims is the involvement of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, who has worked extensively on harmonizing Islam and international human rights discourse.”
Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance agrees. He told IPS, “The declaration is an important symbol. In itself it has not ameliorated human rights around the world, but it has given every member of the family of nations a standard by which to judge their own society's efforts. First World democracies could say to the developing world, ‘This is the direction in which you should strive to take your politics’, while Third World countries could remind the West whenever it strayed, ‘Don't forget the values that made your nations great’. Clearly, there is still much to do in the world to better human rights, but we have moved a great deal since the middle of the last century and the Declaration is part of the reason for that change.”
Also seeing the half-full glass is Chip Pitts, President of the Board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC), immediate past Chair of Amnesty International USA, and a professor of international human rights at the Stanford Law School. He told IPS, “The Declaration gave human rights traction; what we now need is action… A new global scrutiny exists as a result of modern communications, 24-hour media, and the explosion of nongovernmental organizations and global and regional enforcement mechanisms” since 1948.
He adds: “The Declaration worked incredibly well to establish and proliferate standards…The Declaration also offered an integrated view of civil and political rights, on one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights, on the other. That integrated view was challenged during the Cold War, when the U.S. supported the former rights and the Soviet Union supported only the latter. Space for a newly integrated view opened up briefly during the 90s, but has been closed again just when it is most needed -- during this new century, when the cracks and fissures from globalization are newly apparent.”
But Dr. Jack N. Behrman, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina who served as an official in the Kennedy Administration, takes a far less optimistic view.
He told IPS, “If human rights include non-discrimination and human dignity, it is not possible to have any measure of whether they are better now than before. Exposure of each is still not at all full, and what we do read and hear in the media does not give encouragement that we have improved. In fact, the U.S. practice of torture displays the opposite.”
Behrman says “One reason for not extending human rights is the continuing view that ‘I and My People’ deserve more than others do, and if they get it my way, they should be pushed down or aside. A second is fear -- of others and loss of ‘my’ position and prestige.
IPS asked commentators for this article to identify the major problems facing the U.N. and what the body could do to overcome them.
BORDC’s Pitts notes that “The international legal mechanisms remain weak -- e.g. the state-to-state complaint mechanisms of the UN treaty bodies, and the limited rights of individual petition operating there and in the regional human rights bodies (e.g. the Inter-American and European procedures). And these limited mechanisms have been weakened by powerful nations lately, especially the United States. For the United States to actively encourage so many nations to undermine fundamental human rights by adopting principles like those at the heart of its own ‘Patriot Act’ -- e.g. by condoning arbitrary and secret detention, disappearances, discrimination, reversal of the presumption of innocence and the right to fair trials, of the right to confront your accusers and the evidence against you, of the right to be free from cruel and inhuman treatment -- is a tragic setback to global peace, prosperity, and true security.”
His recommendation: “We need to move from standard setting to enforcement and implementation via application to non-state actors (e.g. corporations, al Qaeda) as well as states, and on the basis of a newly integrated vision of a world in which all human rights are respected and protected; but this is difficult without leadership of the sort that resulted in the Declaration, and political will to overcome narrow interests and recognize the immense practical importance of human rights.”
Dr. Safi thinks “more work can and should be done” in “working with religious reformers who want to find a religious voice for engaging universal human rights discourse, establishing international organizations for the monitoring and when necessary persecution of crimes against humanity, and considering issues such as poverty as central to help translate human rights discourse into a meaningful reality for the lives of the one billion human beings who live on a dollar a day, and for whom human rights discourse sounds like an elitist concern without a meaningful impact on their lives.”
But, according to Dr. Behrman: “The U.N. cannot possibly do enough, for it is composed of countries that do not ‘buy into’ the Declaration even if they have signed it. The basic obstacle to doing more is the attitude of individuals, ethnic groups, communities, and nations that supports separation instead of a willingness to embrace humanity. The Declaration itself cannot work at all; it depends on each country's implementation. And I have not read in the media that any country has shown the way in protecting human rights, particularly of minorities and immigrants.”
Professor Abdullahi An-Na'im of the Emory School of Law in Atlanta, voices a similar view. He told IPS, "Upholding and protecting human rights is the responsibility of every government, state, and their citizens, and not of the UN as an abstract entity. The UN is what its member states make of it, or fail to make of it. Every decision to act or fail to act, allocation of resources, and follow through, etc. is taken by government delegates."
He continued: "Human rights are always violated or protected on the ground, in real time and space, which is always within the jurisdiction of a state, not the UN as such. A violation can only happen when some human being does or fails to do something to another human being. That can only be done by the citizens of one state or another, and also within the territory of a state. The protection of human rights will not improve until we all accept our responsibility for this, and stop blaming the UN for our failures."