This is the 50th Anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document of vision and decency, which was proclaimed as a “common standard” for all humanity by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. At its heart, this is a document about the equal and inalienable right of every person to live in dignity.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the great documents of the 20th century. In fact, it is one of the great documents of all time. It gives voice to the common aspirations of all humanity to be treated fairly and justly. It includes civil and political rights, and also economic, social and cultural rights. It holds high the value and worth of each individual.
Despite the importance of this document, however, it is not widely known or appreciated throughout much of the world. Very few Americans are familiar with the document, and fewer still have read it and know of its contents. This is a failure of our educational systems. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be at least as well known to Americans as our own Bill of Rights, which it surpasses in its comprehensiveness.
No document, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can solve the problems of humanity simply by its existence on paper. Far from it. Set down on paper, the Universal Declaration represents only the vision and hope of those who proclaimed it. To give life to the document, each generation must work actively and diligently to uphold its principles. To bring the Universal Declaration to life, each of us must work to uphold human rights and oppose human wrongs.
This is what Mahatma Gandhi did in his nonviolent protests for an end to colonialism in India. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. and the freedom riders and other civil rights activists did in putting their bodies on the line for equal rights for all citizens in the United States. This is what the mothers of the disappeared did in standing in silent protest in Argentina during its “dirty war.” This is what Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress did in their struggle against apartheid in South Africa. This is what Bishop Oscar Romero did in working for justice in El Salvador, and what Rigoberta Menchu Tum has done in Guatemala. This is what Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers do in Burma today.
Upholding human rights and opposing human wrongs is the work of all who seek to provide food and shelter for the hungry and destitute, for all who seek justice, for all who seek an end to tyranny and oppression, for all who seek peace and an end to violence, for all who work to rid the world of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
Human rights demand human responsibilities. The worst atrocities of the 20th century were committed by governments, often against their own people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a response in part to the genocidal abuses which occurred during World War II. But genocide has not gone away in the latter half of this century. We have only to think of Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda.
It is our responsibility to build an international community that is strong enough to prevent the commission of genocide from occurring ever again. A step in this direction was taken this past summer in Rome when delegates of more than 100 countries agreed to a treaty to establish an International Criminal Court. This court would hold accountable perpetrators of the most serious international crimes — genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Unfortunately, once again, as with the Landmines Convention in 1997, the United States was not among the countries supporting this important step forward.
The Fall 1998 issue of Waging Peace Worldwide includes comments on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Richard Falk, Frank Kelly, and Nelson Mandela. The winning essay in our Swackhamer Peace Essay Contest discusses “Human Rights and Responsibilities” is also included in this issue, as well as a proposal for a United Nations Volunteer Force by Tad Daley, comments on establishing an International Criminal Court by Kofi Annan and Benjamin Ferencz, and Senator Douglas Roche’s inaugural speech in the Canadian Senate.