When Jimmy Carter proclaimed in his inauguration speech that human rights would be the centerpiece of American foreign policy, few of his fellow citizens had any idea of what he was talking about. Yet open your newspaper on any day and you will find that articles referencing human rights are inescapable. Human rights are everywhere.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed 66 years ago this December 10th. But until the mid-1970s, human rights had remained a kind of political backwater. Since that time, in great measure because of the prestige that President Carter brought to it, the human rights idea has exploded onto the world scene to become one of the most often-invoked and potent political instruments of our time. In fact, since the demise of socialism, human rights has become the prevailing tool oppressed people around the globe use to protest their oppression in the service of leveraging greater justice. Whether we are discussing the subordination of women in the developing world or at the hands of fundamentalist religions, the international sex trade, female genital mutilation, the torture of detainees at Guantanamo or as standard operating procedure in over 140 countries, or the persecution of minorities on every continent, we are embedding ourselves in the world of human rights.
Fundamental Economic Rights Expand
But the human rights idea has expanded in the past seven decades to encompass more than what we understand to be the suppression of people’s political rights. From its beginnings, and especially more recently, human rights has strongly embraced fundamental economic entitlements. So it is now understood that if people are deprived of an education, find themselves homeless or do not have access to medical care, their human rights are being violated. Poverty is a human rights abuse. Years ago, to say that one had access to clean drinking water as a matter of human rights, was a claim that would be summarily dismissed. Today not so. The right to a healthful, sustainable environment is very much part of the human rights program.
The human rights regime, as it is called, lays out a growing roster of rights that individuals hold and that their governments are duty-bound to recognize and fulfill. A right is not merely a request, not solely an aspiration, not merely a nice gesture deserving of a glancing nod. A right is a hard claim that demands a positive response from those upon whom it is made; in the case of human rights, one’s government. Most of these rights are encoded in international treaties and are, therefore, components of international law.
In reality, human rights are often invoked and very often violated. Governments all too frequently fail to honor their international commitments by abusing their citizens and others under their jurisdiction. The horrors that we see unfolding in Syria at the moment and elsewhere in the Middle East; the five million victims of war in Congo, including at least 100,000 women who have been raped; the conscription of child soldiers; the plight of 20 million refugees; and the persistence of hunger and destitution all speak to the often blatant disregard of human life and human dignity that seem to make a mockery of the human rights project.
So when we take a sober look at the persistence of cruelty around the globe, we can ask the question, in the 66 years since Eleanor Roosevelt helped to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has the human rights program made any difference?
Yes, Human Rights Has Made a Difference
The answer is “Yes it has.” Every nation in the world has given formal recognition to the observance of human rights as a standard for its conduct. Which means that exposure of violations of human rights engenders shame and requires a response to those violations. This capacity to “name and shame” has leveraged lifesaving changes. On the level of the individual, countless numbers of people have been freed from wrongful imprisonment and spared torture and execution and have been supported in the right practice of their beliefs and expression of their opinions because of pressure brought to bear in the name of human rights.
But on the sweeping level of mass changes, the human rights movement has focused the conversation, set the norms and framed the agenda of humankind as a whole. Working through the United Nations and other organizations, we are making real strides in reducing poverty, eradicating diseases, and fostering economic development in places in which it appeared that only destitution lay in the future. And given the horrors of the past century, there are assertive efforts to recognize the warning signs that can metastasize into genocide and develop strategies to intervene to prevent it and thereby offset the slaughter of multitudes human beings, and other mass atrocities. There is a growing international consensus that without the realization of human rights, political and economic, the world can have neither justice nor peace.
Among the most compelling aspect of the human rights movement is that its most essential work is done primarily by volunteers. It is estimated that today there are more than 20,000 non-governmental organizations dedicated to promoting human rights. To work in the human rights field is to put oneself squarely before the darkest underside of human behavior. But at the same time it also inspires hope in the human future.
In my talk of December 7th I plan to talk about human rights, what they mean, how they have evolved, modes of enforcement and some of their limitations as well. I have titled my address “Human Rights and the Heavy Lifting of Social Justice.” I hope you can join me then.